Thursday, 19 November 2009

A rosy view

I can’t help thinking that Chris Maclean is looking at the pub trade through rose-tinted spectacles when he says he thinks the worst is now over and there are great opportunities out there. He is entirely right, of course, about the vicious circle of decline – falling trade leading to shorter opening hours, reduced facilities and lower standards of service and cleanliness. But putting all the lights on, turning the heating up, smiling broadly and organising a series of special events will do nothing to revitalise business if the trade isn’t there, and may well look more like flogging a dead horse.

I see no evidence that the pub trade is poised to roar back into life once the economy starts to improve. On the contrary, I see large numbers of once-thriving pubs that are virtually empty most of the time, look increasingly tired and down-at-heel and seem to be hanging on by their fingernails. If anything, the recovery might hasten their demise by making redevelopment into something else more financially attractive. Exactly where are all these new customers going to come from, when there’s been no evidence of them over the past two-and-a-half years? There are vast numbers of pubs for sale or to let on all the estate agents’ websites – there are two in a half-mile stretch on my journey to work – but nobody seems to be biting.

There will be a lot more pain before we hit the floor – I can easily see eight to ten thousand more pubs going – and few of those that remain will bear much resemblance to a pub as understood in the Seventies and Eighties. Of course the pub-haters will see that as a good thing, “But they serve ciabattas and have comfy sofas!” Umm, precisely.

This comment from Pete Robinson is spot-on:

I do take issue with talk of ‘bad pubs’ because there's no such thing IMHO. Grotty back street boozers are, or were, a reality and I deeply grieve their passing. They were as vital a part of our British pub culture as the very finest establishments. Many people loved their pure, unashamed character even if it was served in a dirty glass. They survived two world wars and a century of recessions only to be wiped out by the nannying political correctness of people who would never be seen dead in such places.
In reality, the decline of the pub trade is nothing to do with bad pubs or bad licensees. It might be possible to revive one or two failing pubs with a lot of care and attention, but all that would do would be to leach trade away from other pubs. It would do nothing to increase the overall demand for pubs.


  1. I've got about 25 pints of homebrew Yorkshire bitter left and another 40 brewing since Sunday. It costs me about 25p a pint, so the conversation in the pub would have to be outstanding to get me back at their prices (including tax).

  2. I'm not sure I see the same picture as you do from my part of the country. I think that we are on the way up again.

    If pubs want the business they will need to create it. Joe & Jo Public won't cross the threshhold if not enticed. If the publicans sit on their arses waiting for people to come back they will probably be disappointed. "Exactly where are all these new customers going to come from" - they won't come from anywhere, they will need to be 'created'.

  3. The time for talk is over, they aint listening. Its time for [peaceful] protest!

  4. Mudgie. I think when you quote Pete Robinson, you are putting on the rose tinted specs you complain about.

  5. Sorry, Tandleman, Pete Robinson tells it as it is, unlike the deluded loons who claimed the smoking ban would result in a net gain of customers for pubs.

    Yes, most of the pubs you and I like frequenting will probably survive, but across the generality of the pub trade the outlook remains bleak in the extreme.

  6. You know, he does call it as he sees it and that's great, but he can come across as a one song singer. Many comments on his articles by the trade say much the same thing.

    The pub trade would have been shaken out anyway. The smoking ban speeded it up for sure, but just having come back from Belgium stinking of smoke, I for one, welcome it.

  7. Well, maybe I'm a one song singer too. But if that song is the truth, I don't care. In every previous recession, the pub trade has proved very resilient, whereas in this one pubs are dropping like flies because of the smoking ban. It is an utterly disgusting, bigoted piece of legislation and it is beyond my comprehension how any supposed supporter of pubs can think it is a good idea. It is abundantly obvious how the antismoking arguments and techniques are now being turned against alcohol.

    Pubs are better for it?! Well, the 4,580 that have closed certainly are.

    And I bet the bars were thriving in Brussels!

  8. Can't say I agree with you that pubs should resemble those of the 70s and 80s. Are you only saying that because those were decades when you were younger?

  9. The old concept of a pub was a welcoming place busy with convivial drinkers rather than today's gloomy, politically correct deadholes.

  10. Jeffrey: I lived in pubs in the 80s and they were still convivial places to go. The false idea that they were all spit and sawdust fleapits is one of the effects of the massive propaganda which has been foisted on the public in pursuit of this ban.

    The difference between then and now is that pubs definitely were more welcoming. Even the well furnished ones were expected to be or they struggled. A pub with no soul lost customers very quickly.

    A brief example. In 1986, a pub near ours was refurbished into a 'disco' pub at a rumoured cost of £250,000. It lasted 6 months before the brewery spent another huge figure to change it back to the welcoming pub it had been for hundreds of years. It's still in business, but thanks to the smoking ban, is now a sparsely populated Beefeater. I give it six months before it shuts.

    70s/80s pubs were all about interaction between customers and staff, and if you didn't have that, your pub was empty. Nowadays, more's the pity, interaction isn't necessary at all. Customers can go to a pub, never knowing the name of the owner or staff, never having to talk to a fellow customer, and will still leave happy.

    Does it mean that pub-goers have changed? Yes, probably, but one has to ask where that change emanated, if it is societal or if it was engineered or brought about by external forces. I am with Curmudgeon in believing that it is an entirely alien culture to British pubs, brought about by those without the best interests of pubs at heart. Maybe not intentionally, but the result is the same.

    One thing is for certain though - pubs are not welcoming, relaxing places for social interaction anymore, they are barns or glorified restaurants. The old-style 'local' is now a very rare beast.

  11. You know I agree with most of what people say here. I too like to think of the lovely convivial socially interactive times I had in the pub 20 odd years ago and agree too with Dick that some of the social changes have been brought about by external cultural influences, mostly American and starting with work related stuff and radiating outwards. But we are where we are as my old boss used to say. I don't agree that pubs aren't good places to go anymore - some aren't of course - but some always weren't. Even in the halcyon days, you had to pick and choose.

    I agree too that alcohol is a clear and easy target for some, but that said, the re-introduction of smoking in pubs, which won't ever happen - this isn't Germany - won't change that or the structural and societal earthquakes that have changed things so much.

    It isn't that Dick or you are wrong, but you just can't be King Canute and on a personal level, I like not to smell, so sorry.

    And on a more positive note,
    I agree particularly with Paul. I detect things are looking up too.

  12. Maybe the smoking ban won't be amended, but that doesn't mean it's not worth campaigning for, and things can turn around in surprising ways. Some day the present ban-everything tendency must come to an end, although it might be after you and and I are dead.

    It would be nice if just for once the antismokers would have the decency to acknowledge that the smoking ban has ripped the guts out of the pub trade rather than remaining in a state of denial over it. Of course there are other factors at work, but the ban turned a long, slow decline into a headlong plunge off a cliff.

    And if you didn't like smelling of smoke there were plenty of pubs with non-smoking areas. Wouldn't it have been better to campaign for that choice to be extended rather than seeking to deny it to half the pubgoing population?

  13. Sorry C'Man. I think non smoking areas in an otherwise smoking pub is like having non pissing areas in a swimming pool and just as effective. That is, clearly it ain't.

    I agree that the ban has had a major effect, but there are signs that as things shake out and the trade loosens up, prospects are starting to pick up.

    I didn't campaign for anything and wouldn't want us to go backwards. We need to move on.

  14. Whenever I see the old chestnut about pissing sections in swimming pools, I know any prospect of rational debate goes out of the window. It is an absurd, hyperbolic argument with no foundation in reality.

    As Michael J. McFadden, author of Dissecting Antismokers' Brains, rightly says:

    "Antismokers claim that having a non-smoking section in a restaurant is like having a non-pissing section in a swimming pool.

    "As pointed out in the chapter on Secondary Smoke, this claim is off by a factor of at least 15,000 air/water changes. In percentage terms the Antismokers are exaggerating by one million, five hundred thousand percent.

    "I call this claim a lie."

  15. So my skin and clothes smelling was imaginary at best, or more likely a lie? Actually what your Yankee buddy is on about is the health aspects. I don't doubt it and that doesn't bother me at all It's the bloody smell on me I can't stand. I think plenty think the same.

    I actually agree with quite a lot of what you say, but I just don't want to stink. Sorry but there it is.

  16. Tandleman, on subjects other than this I recognise we have a considerable measure of agreement.

    But, in a sense, I have more respect for those who genuinely believe that second-hand smoke poses a real health risk than those who want to ban smoking in pubs just because they don't like it.

    That really is the attitude of the bigot: "I don't like it, therefore I want it banned."

    Surely some compromise could have been arrived at that allowed people who disliked tobacco smoke to drink in a smoke-free environment while still allowing smokers and their tolerant friends areas where smoking was permitted.

    The current situation is like banning cask beer because most people prefer lager.

  17. "I think non smoking areas in an otherwise smoking pub is like having non pissing areas in a swimming pool and just as effective."

    Kerching! © ASH 1995

    There should be a Godwin's Law against this incredibly tired cliché. It's getting so bad now that anti-smokers don't see the problem with using it to deny separate rooms (not you, Tandleman). Seriously, I've seen it many times. ASH soundbites are trotted out regularly by those who just don't like smoke, to verbally deny the existence of other alternatives. Next up, "Your freedom to smoke ends where my nose begins". Go on, you know you want to. ;-)

    So, to turn it on its head, a separate smoking room is like a separate pissing room in a swimming pool. Eminently workable.

  18. Every single swimming baths has toilets - but the piss doesn't tend to end up in the pool.


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