Sunday 25 November 2012

Cause or effect?

There’s yet more common sense in the letters column of December’s What’s Brewing in the form of no less than three letters pointing out that the widespread conversion of pubs to supermarkets is largely a symptom of the decline of the pub trade, not a cause.

First up is no less than Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s, who peddles his favourite bizarre hobby-horse that food in shops does not bear VAT, while that in pubs and restaurants does, but is spot-on with this statement:

Once pubs become loss-making, or otherwise unviable, a change in the planning laws to prohibit their use as supermarkets is a pyrrhic victory, since an empty building is often worse for a local community than a mini-supermarket.
Next is Reg Newcombe of Derby, who says:
There has been a gradual process of attrition, until only the better pubs remain. It’s what the pre-Darwinian evolutionist Herbert Spencer called survival of the fittest.

If an unfrequented pub falls into disuse, it will not be because the shadow of a supermarket has fallen across its path. It will be because it was not one of the better pubs – not one of the fittest. Perhaps it was uninviting or inconveniently located. Perhaps the beer was poorly kept or overpriced.

And Keith Morgan of Appleby-in-Westmorland:
I am no lover of supermarkets, but wonder whether CAMRA should emphasise the threat to pubs of conversion to supermarkets. While we all regret the loss of any pub, the industry is an organic one which is constantly changing to meet consumer demand. I do not recall outrage expressed by the financial services sector when Wetherspoons was converting redundant banks to pubs.
As I’ve often said before, in most parts of the country there’s no shortage of recently-closed pubs, often attractive buildings in prominent locations, in many cases still closed and boarded up. If the pub trade was thriving, surely they would be snapped up, but they’re not. And even if beer was £1 a pint, and you had to buy bottles from a dingy offie, pubs wouldn’t be doing anything like the business they were thirty years ago because society has changed. And, of course, an elephant has come along and sat in the middle of the saloon bar.

There’s also a letter from John Payne of Warrington who wonders whether it will even get published and says:

I am fed up of coming across rows and rows of pumps selling mediocre microbrewery ales – golden, or blonde ales...

...Good pubs don’t shut down, poor ones do. I do not have a problem going to Tescos and picking up four bottles of Fullers 1845, or similar, for £6.

Is there maybe a need to recognise the realities of the modern drinks marketplace and rethink the objectives and strategy of the organisation rather than fighting a battle to stop the tide from coming in?

Mind you, last month there was a letter from a guy complaining about cask beer often being too cold and suggesting that ideally it should be served at room temperature...


  1. I think that you, and some of those correspondents you quote, have misunderstood CAMRA's position. The misunderstanding is best expressed by Cooking Lager who, in his increasingly intolerant manner, says that "beards" (i.e. real ale drinkers - I'm clean shaven, by the way, CL) would prefer boarded up pubs to supermarkets. This is nonsense. CAMRA is simply suggesting that the change from pub to supermarket should require planning permission, which obviously could lead to a change of use. I'd imagine that permission would be refused only if there was evidence that the pub was, or could be, viable; not easy to prove, but at least that process would allow local people, if they could be bothered, to take part in the planning process.

    As for the person you quote who is happy to pick up 4 bottles of Fullers for £6. How many times do we have to say that pub-going isn't just about buying and drinking alcohol? That's what offies and supermarkets are for. If buying beer is all he ever went to a pub for, then he's probably better off at home.

    Yes, we can glibly talk about the changing face of pub-going and drinking, but that's always been the case. I remember reading "The Death Of The English Pub" in the 1970s, when similar things were said then. Funny: I was in a pub tonight, 40 years after that book was published.

  2. 2 posts pointing out reasonable and sensible views held by bearded types? What is going on, Mudge?

    Next you'll be pointing out the smoking ban has been good for public health

    Get back to Camra bashing!

  3. Well said Nev. There is a point though that CAMRA put over good messages badly.

    Of course the other point is that for reasons completely unrelated to alcohol, local folks may well not wish a Tesco or whatever in their midst and this flaw in planing laws denies them the opportunity to object.

  4. There is no great unfairness in planning regulation. The sandwich shop down the road did not require my permission to become a kebab shop. The grocers do not need permission to become a cafe. These are privately owned establishments. As a local resident I prefer a thriving business to a boarded up building as it looks nicer, looks prosperous and does not attract graffiti, but I don’t get to pick that I prefer a coffee shop to a chip shop by anything other than how I spend my money.

    As a beer club of predominantly left wing opinion, CAMRA appears of the view that pubs are somehow public because of the love they have for them. If I own a pub I ought to be able to close it and open a convenience store if I like. If local residents do not want that, they are free not to shop in it. Viability comes down to what I can make the most out of and a convenience store is busy 7 days a week. If my store proves a nuisance local residents can complain about it. If bearded types want to keep pubs open, let them buy them and run them. As shown, there are no shortage of them.

    If I wanted to open a pub, you might then argue that I ought not to ask permission? Well pubs have a track record of being a source of nuisance. Of noise, drunkenness and litter. There ought to be restrictions on opening them. When the local Tesco Express causes 1am street fights & public urination you can put the same rules on them.

  5. Of course, the question is not really why are all these pubs closing, because we all know the answer to that, because not enough people are drinking in them.

    We know why this is as well: because there are better, cheaper offers elsewhere. You can buy better, cheaper beer in the supermarket, and you can sit in a nice comfy armchair with a whole plethora of entertainment options at your fingertips.

    The question is, is there anything that can be done to lure the punters back in? What can struggling pubs start to offer that they're not currently? Those pubs that are bucking the trend and doing well - what are they doing differently?

  6. The reality is that pub owners do not say, "I think I'll close my pub and open a shop in it." They sell the building and the purchaser is the one who decides what to put in it. The suggestion of an infringement of pub owners' rights to convert their pubs into shops themselves simply doesn't arise.

    Nuisance: most pubs don't cause any kind of nuisance at all. To blame all for the faults of a few is like saying all football fans are hooligans or racists. Or lager drinkers are louts.

    Boarded up buildings: no one wants those, nor does anyone one prefer an empty pub to a different successful business. If a pub was empty with planning permission applied for, and no one objected, it would, and should, go through. Protesters would also have to state a case which consists of rather more than "I miss my local", otherwise permission would be granted. The suggestion that the planning process could be misused by real ale drinkers to keep unviable pubs empty is sheer fantasy.

    "CAMRA is left wing": being on the Left, and a CAMRA member since the 1980s, I can assure you that this assertion does not accord with my experience. My former nickname RedNev came about as a friendly skit in our local CAMRA branch at my views, precisely because my left wing activism was a bit of a novelty. In my experience, the political views of CAMRA members are representative of mainstream political views of society as a whole.

    I possess a TV, DVD player, Freeview box, digital radio and a hi fi system. The idea of my social life consisting of these plus supermarket beers sounds pretty awful to me. But I suppose that if you're not a sociable type, it may be enough.

  7. There's no point getting judgemental about it, telling punters they're making bad decisions with their choice of evening entertainment is not going to persuade them to come flooding back to the pub in droves. We need a more constructive approach than that.

  8. And as an aside, there was another letter reminding CAMRA that it agreed to focus on fewer campaigns so it stood more chance of success. I get the impression that they made the key aims so vague, they could keep adding in more and more and thus get back to the situation where we keep getting distracted, by supermarkets in this case.

  9. This story rather chimes with the theme of this post - "Croydon pub of the year to become Sainsbury's".

  10. The real question in that story is how crappy must the other pubs in Croydon be if a rough looking and(presumably) underperforming Wetherspoons is voted pub of the year.

  11. It was chosen as Pub of the Year in Croydon Council's Best Bar None awards - not something actually voted on by the public.

    Never been there, but Croydon does have something of a reputation for crappiness.

  12. The only thing I remember about Croydon pubs is the landlord trying to charge 70 grand to my card for two pints of lager. Apparently "he got the decimal point in the wrong place".

  13. "The suggestion of an infringement of pub owners' rights to convert their pubs into shops themselves simply doesn't arise."

    Anyone that buys a pub is a pub owner, even if they have no intention of running it as a pub.

    "The suggestion that the planning process could be misused by real ale drinkers to keep unviable pubs empty is sheer fantasy"

    One look at the CAMRA forum and chemical fizz Dickie suggests whilst it may be unfair to joke that the beard club is little more than a bunch of nutters, it has its fair share of nutters who would do just that.

    As for the Croyden boozer, if Spoons cannot make a go of a boozer I don't fancy anyone elses chances.

    One feature of Spoons success is that they are unsentimental about their trading sites. Opening where they think is a good location, closing what does not work out rather than let it leach money for years and all pubs acquired within a generation chosen for viability. All chosen and none inherited from days of yore.

    The sad fact is the beard club is at its best when campaigning to customers on the demand side of the economic graph. Running pong festivals and marketing the grog far better than the producers do. They succeed in turning significant numbers onto pongy ale despite gthe worst efforts of those that make it.

    They are a miserable failure when they try and manipulate the supply side through price controls or in this case planning regulation and are too easily influenced by the supermarket hating zeitgeist of middle class phobia.

    If a campaign group trying to save Post Offices suggested making it more difficult to change the use of one, it would be laughed down.

    The fact is Costa Coffee is more of a threat to pubs than Tesco, because that is where on this rainy afternoon people prefer to sit.

  14. I don't understand why city centre pubs find it so difficult to bring in day time trade for coffee and snacks. Its not like it wouldn't be easy enough to invest in a fancy coffee machine, provide free papers and wifi and stick the prices up on a board outside and undercut Costa Coffee.

    Its not like thirsty shoppers and day time drinkers spontaneously combust when they come into contact with each other. The problem I suspect is that a lot of pubs look dark, dreary and unwelcoming during the day.

  15. That's what spoons reminds me of now your mention it, a cheap and nasty version of Costa that happens to also sell beer and bottles of wkd.

  16. Cafes are nothing new. Costa & Starbucks figured a way of flogging more expensive coffee by increasing the value to punters. Spoons do a good budget option and succeed and possibly a reason the big M has not rolled out the European McCafe here. Pubs have not figured a way of increasing the value of their offer alongside the price. So a 3 quid pint is poor value and looks a rip off but a 3 quid coffee is aspirational. The beards are more likely to blame Sainsbury Cafe.

  17. McDonalds coffee is actually pretty good as it is, and much better value than Starbucks etc.

    Starbucks/Costa figured out that people liked the idea of being all sophisticated and sitting in a cafe drinking coffee a lot more than they liked the actual drink itself (which they can also make at home for 2p a cup), hence the reason their most popular drinks are sickly filth like decaf double choc caramel lattes with extra whipped cream.

    Its basically a pseudo-sophisticated pudding shop for women.

  18. Ally McBeal was the point walking through the city with a tall skinny latte took off. Your bog standard cafe died, it didn't start charging 3 quid for a nescafe. What pubs get away with silly prices? Craft ones, to the aspirational bright young things and other mugs. The same stunt occurred 30 years ago when lager was newish.

    Bog standard pubs are trying to get away with the same products that 10 year's ago were half the price. Wages haven't doubled and they look like a rip off.

  19. PYO: I was not being judgmental - I was stating what wouldn't suit me. I don't think it's too far a leap to suggest that if a person's social life consists of beer in front of the TV at home rather than meeting friends, then they won't be socialising much. If that's what suits them, fine, but it wouldn't suit me.

    I also understand that some people have carer responsibilities, and some increasingly can't afford rocketing pub prices. Also, some people simply don't like pubs. Each to their own, whether by choice or enforced by circumstances.

    As for "telling punters they're making bad decisions with their choice of evening entertainment"; that's ludicrous, because no one is going to decide on their evening's entertainment based on what I write on Curmudgeon's blog.

    In fact, my own blog is designed to provide local info about entertainment involving music and real ale in the area I live in. And judging by the stats and feedback I get, quite a lot of people find it useful.

    CL: "Anyone that buys a pub is a pub owner, even if they have no intention of running it as a pub." That argument really is clutching at straws.

  20. Perhaps they meet friends at home? Perhaps they are spending time with their family? Its becoming increasingly unacceptable for a bloke to leave his wife at home with the kids and go for a pint with his mates.

    Regardless, the question we need to actually consider is that given the changing demographics, preferences, and social habits of the nation, how can we increase footfall into our nations pubs, be it on a weekday lunchtime or a Friday night. You have to offer something attractive that the punters can't get as good anywhere else; lots of pubs simply make no attempt to do this.

    I must have been in hundreds of pubs around the country where I've thought "well there is no reason for me ever to come in here again". Same old selection of beers, same old mediocre food, same old lack of entertainment or anything of interest. No wonder pubs continue to shut at a record rate, they have nothing to offer.

  21. Why would anyone want to save pubs? When my virtual pub comes out on android you will be able to enjoy all the grim reality of grotty boozers without having to risk life and limb by going in them.

  22. It wouldn't have that same adrenaline buzz of going and ordering at the bar while a handful of tattooed skinheads with pool cues stare daggers at you. Its the fear that makes it real.

  23. Cookie said:
    The sandwich shop down the road did not require my permission to become a kebab shop. The grocers do not need permission to become a cafe.

    While I'm no planning expect, I'm fairly sure that at least the first example would have required permission - as I recall "hot food takeaway" is a separate planning category.
    Would expect the second case is also a change of use.

    Just shows that people are again missing the point - it's not about stopping closed pubs re-opening as supermarkets, it's about making the supermarkets have to apply for permission just like they would have for any other building.

    Many if not most of the pub to supermarket conversions are pubs which were open and only closed after sale to a supermarket had gone through - but this fact only comes out long after the pub closes. Can name at least four pubs in South Manchester which were trading until the supermarket wallet was waved at the premises owner.
    In the same area, I can only think of one supermarket that has taken over a closed and boarded pub.

  24. Rather amusingly, the Spoons in Croydon which I mentioned earlier that is going to become a Sainsbury's Local is heavily featured in the Winter 2012/13 edition of "Wetherspoon News" under the headline "Pub provides a positive force for community good".


  25. Having finally got round to opening my WB, I see the comment from Mr J Payne actually echoes my previous sentiments expressed on this site about a lack of choice of different beer styles putting off customers just as much as the odd poor quality pint. There's more to real ale than blonde ales and bitter.


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