Wednesday 13 August 2014

A tale told by an idiot

It’s depressingly common to encounter the narrative that the pub closures of the past decade or so have been largely due to badly-managed, short-sighted pub companies acting in concert with bungling councils and grasping developers. Indeed this almost seems to have become the CAMRA orthodoxy.

Yes, pub companies are far from perfect, but this comes across as utterly delusional when you consider all the negative demand factors that have been affecting pubs. Has there really been no impact from the decline of heavy industry, inner-city depopulation, an influx of people from cultures with no pubgoing tradition, changing gender roles, discouragement of lunch¬time drinking at work, denormalisation of drink-driving within the legal limit or the smoking ban?

As I’ve argued before, while it may be possible to construct a narrative for how a particular failed pub could have been better run, it’s far harder to do the same for the pub trade as a whole. There has been a prolonged secular decline in the demand for pubs (or at least for drinking in pubs) that goes well beyond the specifics of individual businesses.

So you have to wonder what is the motivation for these people? Are they basically living in a fantasy world, or are they spurred on by a visceral anti-capitalist agenda that completely ignores the real reasons pubs are closing – often combined with an animus towards the evil supermarkets who have the cheek to sell us a wide range of stuff at keen prices? It almost comes across as a deliberate distraction technique. The one thing that is certain is that they aren’t really interested in the long-term viability of pubs.

Anyone who claims that pub companies are the chief cause of the thirty-year decline of the British pub is completely detached from reality. If you really value pubs, the best way to stand up for them is to fight the anti-drink lobby and the smoking ban, not to wail about the evils of Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns.

And, of course, if it really was a case of lax planning constraints shutting successful pubs, then the pubs that remain would be heaving. Which, in most cases, they aren’t – not to mention the thousands of closed and boarded pubs the length and breadth of the country that are currently neither trading nor yet converted to alternative use.


  1. I didn't join CAMRA to keep pubs open, nor because I hate supermarkets. I just love derelict boarded up buildings and when a business shuts the last thing we need is for the building that housed it to be given an alternate useful function in the community.

    There's nowt like a row of boarded up derelict buildings covered in graffiti to warm the soul.

  2. I agree it's rarely at the feet of the pubco; the best way to stand up for pubs, much like the best way to "stand up" for your local butcher and fishmonger, is to USE the damn thing.

    The real driving force behind the decline of the pub isn't the anti-drink lobby or the smoking ban - it's that fewer people use the pub.

    Use it or lose it.

  3. what's driving force behind fewer people using the pub, Pete?

  4. Well yes, but amongst the reasons for fewer people using pubs are the anti-drink lobby and the smoking ban.

    Five years ago I came up with a list of reasons why people are visiting pubs less.

  5. I think it's a more complex tale than those two - your list certainly covers a lot of the bases, although I think you massively overstate the smoking ban effect.

    For every smoker who abandoned the pub after the ban (which, judging by the swarm of smokers cluttering up the pavement outside many pubs, isn't many) there are plenty of folk who find a smoke-free environment much more appealing. I would certainly have avoided "smokers" pubs before the ban, because it just wasn't a nice environment (for me).

    The rest of that list, though, is spot on. We drink more at home, go to restaurants over pubs (which is why pubs are focusing more and more on decent food) and a general loss of that "go the pub on the way home" culture.

  6. Professor Pie-Tin13 August 2014 at 09:45

    Sorry Mudgie but if you think lifting the smoking ban will bring more people into pubs you're deluded.
    A clean pub with decent beer,a good selection of reasonably-priced food, no TVs or loud music and friendly bar staff will always bring people into pubs.
    I shall be making my annual visit to Dartmouth shortly and I know exactly which pubs provide all or most of the above and without fail they're all the successful pubs in that town.

  7. You phoned in advance, Prof, and told 'em to stock more bog roll?

  8. What do you think can/should be done, Mudgie?

  9. Professor

    I didn't go to the pub to eat, I went for the conversation.
    If you think I would get all dressed up just to sit outside in a shelter 50% open to the elements, you are sadly mistaken.

    As far as I am concerned, in 2007 the pubs suffered a compulsory "change of use" and are no longer any use to me.


  10. Professor Pie-Tin13 August 2014 at 10:42

    Endless repetition of the same gag also saw off your blog if I recall ... or was it just lack of interest?

  11. @Pete - the figures tell the story that the people whom the smoking ban deterred were far more numerous than those it attracted. In the first year after the ban, beer sales in pubs fell by 8%, the highest figure in the statistical series, even though this was before the recession kicked in. In the following year they fell by another 6.9%. Also I'd say that any new customers attracted would tend to be people who weren't going to go to the pub a lot, unlike many of the deterred.

    As I said here in 2008:

    "It was often claimed that hordes of committed non-smokers would flock to pubs in the wake of the ban, but in reality, as I predicted, this was never going to happen. People who were so fastidious that they actively avoided pubs because they were smoky are not the kind to want to spend much time drinking in pubs anyway. As one licensee said, “We’ve had a slide of about ten to twenty percent. I’d like to know where the nonsmokers that were supposed to be coming into pubs when the ban was introduced are. I haven't seen any…” All the ban has done is to make pubs more acceptable to non-pubgoers. So the folk who used to go in a pub once every three months and moan about it being smoky, will now still go in every three months and say how much better it is that there’s no smoke and all those rough people are no longer there. "

  12. Professor Pie-Tin13 August 2014 at 10:46

    @ Anonymous or a Rose by any other name.

    The " change of use " meant people could spend an evening in the pub without stinking like an ashtray.
    And inhaling other people's second-hand carcinogens.
    Don't rush back.

  13. "if you think lifting the smoking ban will bring more people into pubs you're deluded."

    As so much water has now flowed under the bridge it wouldn't be an instant panacea, but allowing pubs to have a separate smoking room if they chose would give some pubs a better chance of survival.

    And some people do like rough, raucous, noisy pubs - not everyone is the same.

  14. Professor Pie-Tin13 August 2014 at 11:04

    Don't get me wrong - I think it's an outrage that the Government taxes alcohol and cigarettes so heavily yet doesn't allow people some degree of comfort to enjoy both.
    And yes, proper heated enclosed smoking areas wherever possible should be allowed - there's an excellent one at Doheny and Nesbitts in Dublin.It simply a seperate area off the bar with a roof but ventilation between that and the walls to allow smoke to escape but not back into the bar.
    But even the smokers I know in Ireland wouldn't like to see a return to smoking in pubs.

  15. "But even the smokers I know in Ireland wouldn't like to see a return to smoking in pubs."

    Stockholm Syndrome alert!

    But if smoking rooms were allowed in pubs again, I'd lay money they smokers (and their non-smoking friends) would use them, and in greater numbers than at present.

    Try Googling "revealed preference".

  16. @py: I'm reminded of the saying by the late Milton Friedman: "The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem."

    Most of the reasons for the long-term decline of pubs are due to wider social trends that realistically it isn't within the power of government to do much about.

    So the best thing is just to avoid doing anything that will make matters worse.

    Obviously some relaxation of the smoking ban would help, and the government should slap down those publicly-funded bodies that are coming out with shrill anti-drink messages.

    Also it seems that freezing/cutting beer duty has had an effect, so a freeze should be maintained for at least a couple more years. It does make a difference when the price of beer in the pub isn't going up by 10 or 20p every year.

  17. Professor Pie-Tin13 August 2014 at 12:02

    I leave Googling to an internet warrior such a Cookie.
    As I mentioned in my earlier post I'm all in favour of smokers being allowed somewhere to enjoy their habit - I'm a cigar man myself and the only place I can smoke a Montecristo and enjoy a drink is sat in the sun somewhere on holiday.
    I'm just not convinced that smokers are staying away from pubs because of the ban.
    Smokers tend to be drinkers and unless you're an obsessive toker, in which case you'd probably be dead by now,I can't see you giving up the pub and your mates just to be able to smoke at home.
    I can only go on the smokers in my local and only one has never come back to the pub since the ban - the rest spark up outside in what, by UK standards, is a luxurious three-sided and heated smoking area.

  18. I would suggest a significant reason for the decline of pubs is greater public health awareness. People want to lead healthy lives.

    Pubs are dirty disagreeable places no respectable person would be seen dead in. More gyms appear to be opening and in cities we are seeing the welcome rise of the temperance bar to compliment the modern coffee shop. These offer a healthy social environment for people as an alternative to the deadly booze fueled pub.

    If CAMRA do not want more convenience stores they ought to welcome a clean respectable temperance bar offering a wide range of healthy tonics and cordials.

    The wheatgrass, carrot & mango smoothie will always be preferable to the pint of bitter.

  19. "This [the smoking ban] has been debated elsewhere ad nauseam" - The Pub Curmudgeon on 28 November 2009 at 09:05.

  20. This wasn't even meant to be a post about the smoking ban!

  21. "Smokers tend to be drinkers and unless you're an obsessive toker, in which case you'd probably be dead by now,I can't see you giving up the pub and your mates just to be able to smoke at home."

    Why do you have to give up your mates? We all meet in each others' houses now instead, where the government hasn't reached yet and the beer is much cheaper. ;)

  22. Eye, Mudge, as it's not about the smoking ban, py’s question is unanswered. What would you do about the decline of pub going?

    I can see how CAMRA nationally might better take on and challenge some of the factors reducing pub going, like the modern temperance lobby. I can’t see much value in leaflets featuring a fat bloke on a sofa trying to encourage pub going with a use it or lose it viewpoint.

    Also as a collection of individual regionally based associations, what can your own and others local beard club do? I can how they might get together to try and save the red lion through planning law. Not sure they can do much about people only popping in at weekend.

  23. Step 1: Reduce the drinking age for beers and ciders below 5% to 16.

  24. Professor Pie-Tin13 August 2014 at 14:01

    @ Anonymous/Rose by any other name.

    Wasn't meant to be spiky.
    I suppose the difference is second-hand smoke is an involuntary carcinogen.

  25. a visceral anti-capitalist agenda

    When you say it, it almost sounds like a bad thing!

  26. Some half wit has suggested,"use it or lose it" re pub closures.
    If "using it" means being treated like someone with Ebola,then stuff your sterile health farms as far a you can.
    Some dipsticks even blame the Tories and unemployment for the pubs demise,anything but the obvious,even one churlish freak loving the fresh ambience of a near empty joint,assuming he frequents all 60,000+ pubs in the UK. Anyway,before the ban, was anyone forced to enter a pub.
    Either we embrace freedom,liberty and choice,warts and all, or we slide down the path of state control........Choose
    Give a town a few smoking pubs(no food or under 18s) then let the people decide with their feet ,thats democracy

  27. Can we have a RedNev /John Clarke rating for the above please? Hit, Miss or maybe?

  28. The trolls here really aren't very good are they? Still, marks (I suppose) for the topical use of Ebola.

    Mudgie; I know it wasn't supposed to be about the smoking ban, but as you view that as a primary cause of pub declines, it's rather inevitable that it'll get talked about.

    Can we just all agree that CAMRA seems to be both clueless about both the cause and the cure? :)

  29. From Dave Atherton my article today.

    The Smoking Ban, Not Cheap Supermarket Alcohol, Has Decimated British Pubs via @BreitbartNews

  30. Cookie - not one of his best. Say 5/10?

  31. this is the answer to smoking, not bannin' it in boozers

  32. I'm not sure that's the same Anon we know and love, to be honest.

  33. It's the holidays. I think Anon the beloved is away sunning themselves.


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.