Tuesday 27 October 2009

Critical mass

York is a major historic city with a thriving tourist trade, and as such you would expect it to have a good number of busy pubs. But it always seems to me that, even taking that into account, York seems to support considerably more pubs than you might think, and certainly more proportionately than comparable cities such as Chester, with several new ones opening up in recent years. A recent CAMRA mini-guide showed well over 60 establishments serving independently-brewed cask beer within and just outside the city walls. It seems to me there is a “critical mass” factor at work here, where the existence of good pubs encourages an interest in beer and pubgoing and creates a virtuous circle that leads other pubs to thrive.

You can see something along the same lines in the South Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which is a prosperous and somewhat “yuppified” area (typical of many city suburbs across the country) where a lot of new bars have opened up and there are probably more than twice as many on-licences as there once were. A lot of these places, such as the Bar, the Marble Beer House and Dulcimer, do offer something interesting on the beer front, but they aren’t by any means exclusively or indeed mainly used by beer buffs.

In contrast, it often seems that failure breeds failure. Some of Manchester’s more down-market suburbs such as Levenshulme have lost more than half their pubs. If nobody else in your circle goes to pubs, then you won’t either. As Chris Maclean says here:
Worse still is the idea that you can profit from another’s demise. People believe that if their nearest competitor is destroyed in this process somehow they’ll be able to mop up the additional business. How wrong can they be? A closed pub seems to blight the area. It seems to me that, if you drive through an area, if one pub is shut then the others nearby are struggling.
This becomes very relevant when we consider the oft-heard suggestion that the decline in pubgoing means that a lot more pubs need to close to give the others a chance to survive. It isn’t anywhere near as simple as that.

It is certainly true that, if the demand for pubgoing falls, then over time the number of pubs will fall too. In fact the closure of pubs tends to lag considerably behind the fall in demand, so you end up with a number of struggling pubs with few customers which in itself can be somewhat offputting. It is also impossible to consider this subject without reiterating the point that if you introduce an external legislative constraint that makes pubs significantly less appealing to half their customers, the results are fairly predictable.

But, on the other hand, it doesn't necessarily follow that, if you reduce the number of pubs, it makes the others stronger. The decision to visit a pub is very much dependent on a specific combination of location and circumstance, and if you alter one factor it may well sway the whole decision. People visit pubs for a vast range of reasons about which it’s difficult to generalise, and it’s all too easy for commentators to assume that others’ motivation tends to be the same as their own. Probably making a deliberate decision to go to the pub in preference to other leisure options only accounts for a minority of visits.

As an example, if someone regularly walks to a pub in their village, and that pub closes, the odds are he’ll stop going to the pub entirely rather than use whatever means available to go three miles to the pub in the next village. Even if he does occasionally go to the other pub, he’s unlikely to go there anywhere near as often. In contrast, if the petrol station closed in his village, he would drive three miles to the nearest one rather than stop driving. And even if there are other pubs easily accessible, there may be very good reasons why the customers of one closed pub won’t use those that remain.

Many of the pubs that have closed have been ones on free-standing sites in the middle of extensive areas of housing, where there are no other pubs nearby, which from a narrow rational view of demand you might have expected to have a secure future.

This strongly suggests that simply culling the number of pubs will not guarantee the survival and prosperity of those that remain. What is more important is encouraging the interest and attitude of mind that leads people to visit pubs.

(this post is a revised and expanded version of my response to this blog post by Jesusjohn)


  1. Losing a pub is more like losing a good friend. Once lost you don't just replace it!

  2. The smoking ban is nothing but
    an out and out bigotted attack on
    the working class and their way of life and culture.The main supporters are, in the main, liberal minded well heeled wets ,
    backed up by nationwide institutions like Wetherspoons ,
    Camra and the BBC whose distance
    from the ordinary Briton is measured in light years.
    Backstabbers and traitors will get
    their payback sooner than they think. The ruffians from the closed pubs are beginning to
    make their presence felt in the
    nanny and jellytot saloons.

    Ex Spitfire

  3. Martin, Cambridge31 October 2009 at 10:27

    An interesting debate with JJ, and I share your view that success breeds success.

    The people visting quality pubs around Mill Road in Cambridge or the Northern Quarter or York aren't just CAMRA scoopers, they're people who enjoy characterful pubs.

    It's not just relatively affluent areas that attract good pubs - as Sheffield, Salford and the Black Country show.

    However, there remain a lot of areas without a concentration of good pubs and fast falling wet sales. Despite Wetherspoons efforts, London is appalling for pubs given it's size, both for quality and choice. East Birmingham is very similar. Food business won't support pubs (post smoking-ban of course).

    Comparing York to other tourist centres is interesting. York pubs seem to benefit from enterprising local breweries (particularly York) who get their beers into even the most food-driven sites. Recently I've seen Milton breweries finally get into Cambridge pubs and resaturants, as well as the wider free trade.


Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. Unregistered comments will generally be rejected unless I recognise the author. If you want to comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.