Saturday 23 November 2013

Culling the stragglers

Until a few years ago, I would always have said that the family brewers were more committed to holding on to their pubs than the pub companies were. Yes, the occasional no-hoper would be let go, such as Robinson’s Church in Edgeley, but often you would see tied houses still in business when around them several pub company properties were closed and boarded.

However, recently things seem to have changed, as a new, more commercially-minded generation comes to the fore and the cold winds of the recession and the general decline of the pub trade have started to bite. I know that to varying degrees Holts, Hydes and Lees have all become keener to dispose of under-performing pubs, but it is Robinson’s cull that is most obvious as they had more pubs to start with, and a large concentration in and around Stockport. Over the past two or three years I would say they have sold off at least an eighth of the pubs they had before.

I recently mentioned the Wanted Inn at Sparrowpit which is typical of quite a few pubs in their rural estate. In central Stockport, we have lost the Royal Oak near the brewery, the Grapes in Edgeley, the Bull’s Head on the Market Place, the Flying Dutchman on Hillgate and Cobdens and the Unity on Wellington Road South. The much-loved Tiviot closed only last weekend. In the suburbs, pubs like the Horsfield Arms outside the Robinson’s packaging plant, the Pineapple in Marple, the Lowes Arms in Woodley and the Grove, Royal Oak and Woodman in Hazel Grove have gone. Macclesfield has seen a similar cull to central Stockport. And I could (but won’t) name at least three more within a mile of the town centre which, on recent evidence, do not look long for this world.

I also recently spotted that the Masons Arms in Denton (pictured) had been de-signed. This is a pub on a prominent main road site, with a car park, and plenty of nearby housing, much of it owner-occupied, so on the face of it would not obviously appear to be unviable.

In the past, many family brewers felt a sense of responsibility towards their community which led them to keep pubs open that were of only marginal viability. However, at the end of the day they are businesses, not charities, and the new generation of Robinsons have taken a long hard look at the company and how it can be taken forward into the future, which has borne fruit in the rebranding of their beers and initiatives like the brewing of Trooper. On the other hand, they have identified that a lot of their pubs were not sufficiently differentiated from each other, and that their estate did have a long tail of nondescript, underperforming pubs that didn’t contribute much to the business overall and in some cases were proving difficult to find tenants for.

It’s sad to see them go, and some have been cracking boozers in their time – particularly the Grapes in Edgeley which was an archetypal street-corner local and for many years a Good Beer Guide stalwart. However, nobody can be unaware of the multiple pressures on the pub trade and you can’t really blame Robinson’s for biting the bullet.

To their credit, I understand that none of these pubs have been sold with restrictive covenants. Some, such as the former Flying Dutchman, now the Fairway, have been bought by new free trade owners, but the majority have either been converted to alternative uses or still stand in a closed and boarded state. I understand there may be moves in the pipeline to bring more of them back to life, which would be a welcome development, but it would be naive to imagine that it’s possible to revive every closed pub with a new management and approach.


  1. Oak Brewery, brewers of Barnsley Bitter, have also been selling off its pubs. The one in Southport, the London, was in my opinion deliberately run down. Not a penny beyond essential maintenance was spent for many years and it became dingy and uninviting. No surprise, then, when it became unviable: it was run into the ground and a valuable piece of land suitable for redevelopment earns the brewery a nice, one-off cash injection. I know Cooking Lager with his Darwinian approach to economics - the survival of the fittest - would argue that it was obviously worth more that way. True, but selling off the family silver is not a sustainable business. At some point you run out of property to sell, and you have no business. Yes, you'll have money in the bank, but no future, no jobs and in the case of a family business, nothing to hand on. It's short termism.

  2. Oakwell was a rather different case, though, as they had built up an estate of other brewers' and pub companies' cast-offs, many of which had seemed from the start to be of rather doubtful viability.

    The whole operation seemed financially questionable from the start.

  3. Rather than a new more hard nosed commercial view taking hold you could also view it from the following angle.

    That they have never been particular paternal or caring about the community. If they were they wouldn't be flogging booze.

    They just hoped the downturn in business was temporary and then reality bit. They eventually figured that the tatty wet led boozer is in decline and the smart dining pub is on the up.

    That much of the property wasn't really that valuable for other use so they plodded on until reality bit.

    What is means longer term is more interesting than a few boozers closing. The newer dining led pubs make most money from food, wine & lagers they buy in.

    The pubs profits are not really as outlets for the brewery, although they might as well flog the brewery bitter as anyone elses.

    This means the business is 2 distinct businesses rather that one vertically integrated one. At later generations it isn't brothers working together but cousins. Interesting times.

  4. Pretty much every integrated brewer that has thought that selling off the brewery and just becoming a pubco was a good idea has eventually lost its identity, though. Young's seem to be doing OK, but will they have an estate of pubs selling Young's Bitter and Special in ten years' time?

  5. Do they care about whether they sell youngs bitter or care about whether they can afford to pay a dividend?

  6. The only way many smaller breweries have survived in recent years is by raising capital from
    property disposal even at much reduced selling price.Sooner or later the returns from sales at the remaining property stock will be to minimal to justify the continues existence of the company in it's present form
    A realistic estimate of 18,000+
    pubs in England and Wales are on the waiting list to be sold when
    realistic sale values are reached with the upturn in property values.
    Many of the long standing (like Robinsons) breweries were built up and patronised by a different breed than those we havetoday.
    Now we have Breweries,Landlords and clientele who cave in to any whimsical law,restriction and regulation. Who cares?

    pompei 78

  7. I've driven past that pub quite a few times when the road to Sheffield via Castleton is closed. But quite telling I've never been tempted to drop in. It's just in the wrong place for anything but a wet led pub and it's well known they are struggling. It's not in the "trendy" bit of the Peak District or the end/start of any particularly interesting walks or cycling trails. Sad but not surprised.

  8. Time is ripe for the BLAME GAME.
    WHO not WHAT is to blame for the
    demise of the Pub Trade?.
    Lets stop pussy footing about and
    get some names out in the Public Domain.Come on, you Web Warriors
    and fellow Keyboard Kommandos list
    1-10 the culprits


  9. be interested to know which 3 pubs are possibly under threat.(for research purposes)
    I'll have a guess at the Florist.

  10. I did like the Tiviot..on our last visit which was a lock-in on sun afternoon where everyone was smoking. I thought to myself definately one for the blog , but alas i was too slow.
    (only a couple of months ago too)

  11. @Dimpled Mug - send me an e-mail and I'll let you know (the address is in the sidebar). I don't want to put the kiss of death on pubs in the public domain. The Florist isn't one of the three.


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