Thursday, 11 December 2014

Who’s killing the British pub?

Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs has produced a new paper called Closing Time? which looks at the reasons for the sharp decline in the pub trade in recent years and considers possible remedies. There’s a summary here and the full document can be downloaded here.

He points out that, since 1980, Britain has lost 21,000 pubs, with half of that coming since 2006. While some of that has been due to long-term social changes, more than half is the result of excessive taxation, unnecessary regulation and government meddling. Beer, and especially beer in pubs, has borne the brunt of the fall in per capita alcohol consumption. He argues that, while the pubcos may not represent a sound business model, their role in pub closures has been much exaggerated.

To claim that people are not going to the pub because PubCos are closing them down is to confuse cause with effect. In truth, pubs in every part of the sector are struggling from a fundamental lack of demand.
This point is reinforced by his blogpost How not to lie with pub closure statistics.

In conclusion, he says

Pubs are struggling from a lack of demand for pubs which has been largely due to government policy. The government cannot - and should not - undo the cultural changes that have led to people choosing alternative leisure activities, but it can undo the damage it has caused through taxation and regulation. If it is genuinely concerned about the future of the pub trade, it should significantly reduce alcohol duty, relax the smoking ban, reduce VAT to 15 per cent (and lower it further for food sales), abolish cumulative impact zones and scrap the late night levy.
Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, it’s well worth downloading and reading. And no doubt it will raise a few hackles amongst those who can’t see any cause of pub decline beyond the evil pubcos.


  1. The issue of why pubs are closing is so complex its part of the reason I find it so fascinating. However I do believe he has placed too much emphasis on the role of Government and not enough on the wider social trends. Its certainly true that the smoking ban has had a large effect, but my own opinion is that it merely accelerated a decline in wet led suburban pubs that has been going on for a long time. As the heavy drinkers and smokers (used without comment) would have died off over a decade or two and we would be in the same position as we are now. Unbdoubtably they were the bread and butter of such pubs who could not replace them.

    One factor that I haven't seen discussed much, or at all, is the rise of commuting by car. Now, car ownership has been ubiquitous for a generation or longer, but what's been a more recent phenomenon is families having two cars. A family car and commuting car, either company or private. Gone are the days where the breadwinner would either walk locally to large industrial employers or catch the bus/bike etc. This, surely, must affect the likelyhood of a huge target audience in "having a couple" after a work. Whilst it maybe legal, in my old job if I suggested to the 100% car commuters "lets go for a swift one" I'd be looked at with bemusement. You go home, and don't come back out again unless its a special occasion.

    The reason I've picked up on this trend is since moving to London I see pubs after work jam packed full of people, not just in Central London but the more suburban parts. The coincidence of a huge public transport commuting workforce must play a role in this. Its a myth that Londoners have more disposable income, so this can't be it, as those in the North West I believe have the most spare cash after housing costs.

  2. Social change obviously is a major factor - see this post from 2012. To some extent the smoking ban did simply exacerbate trends that were already in motion. I'd say it's not so much suburban pubs that it affected, though, as ones on council estates and in inner-urban areas of terraced housing. Basically, it's working-class, wet-led pubs.

    I'd say most of the rise in car commuting had happened by 2000. I haven't got time now to go through the DfT stats, but I don't think they show much modal shift to cars after 2000. Undoubtedly in the years since 1980 the increased use of cars combined with the increased unwillingness to drink and drive within the legal limit has been a major and underacknowledged cause of pub decline, although obviously many would argue it is a price worth paying. Going back thirty years, calling in for a couple on the way home from work was a major source of business for many pubs. Some might end up over the limit, most didn't. But that early doors trade is greatly diminished now.

    I'd say the phenomenon of packed suburban pubs after work, as with many other things, is very much a London vs the rest phenomenon.

  3. I'm 46, I did most of my socialising in late teens/twenties in pubs (when I could afford to) Not being able to go meant missing out.

    Of all the people I know in that age group, not a single one is a pub-goer.

    It may be different in London, but in places like this you seldom see anyone onder 35 in a pub.

  4. Who's killing the pub? Old codgers buying bottles from home bargain's, that's who.

  5. I'll be doing my bit tonight, Cookie. Will you be gracing us with your presence?

  6. The question I'm trying to work out is *why* London is particularly different to the rest of the country. It certainly isn't disposable cash as the "average" Londoner is dwarfed by the ultra-wealthy and faces extremely high housing costs. Also, the £4 pint doesn't seem to have dampened down demand. So "high prices" aren't the cause of pub closures.

    I do still believe its a shift away from large industrial premises to smaller, individual offices where commuting by car is the norm. You see a similar effect in all major cities where larger volumes are concentrated in a smaller area and there is a "buzz". High quality and affordable public transport seems to be important to the pub.

  7. @Mudge, You seen the weather outside? Why would anyone go outside? To a pub?Is there Nuts models wrestling in jelly in this pub?

    Nige V Russ is on QT later, too.

  8. @liam - the constant demands for ID can't help. And obviously if you have Facebook you don't need to go to the pub just to connect with people.

  9. @Dangerman I bought a bus ticket once. It was when my car broke down. Didn't make me want to go in any dumpy pubs. People say buses are full of weirdos. I didn't meet any and I spoke to everyone.

    Though not having a boot to fill up with cheap slabs of lout was a bit of a bummer. My stock got quite low but luckily the six packs of german lager in the Aldi are carriable.

    The first thing I did when I got it back was nip to tesco.

  10. People don't go to pubs because they don't drink beer, and they don't drink beer since CAMRA ruined it by insisting it should taste like twigs.

  11. Most beer drinkers drink lager. CAMRA has always insisted lager tastes like piss.

  12. If we're slagging CAMRA, what I have noticed is they have been effective in campaigning for a particular type of pub with a middle class appeal and actually are not that bothered about pubs that flog lout and smooth and show the game. There is such a thing as a CAMRA pub and that is what they are about.

    It isn't a campaign to save pubs, it's a campaign for a particular type of pub that their members approve of and frequent.

    But yeh, they like beer that tastes of twigs. Some of them take twigs out of their plastic bags and put them in their beer if it's not twiggy enough, hiding it through the use of tankards. They wanna get with the program and accept grapefruit.

  13. Cookie - If the bus/train was free (having already bought a travelcard or return ticket to work) and turned up every 3 minutes and even ran through the night every 20 minutes I suspect your opinion may be more favourable. It may even encourage you to leave your cheap lout in the fridge and go and socialise ;)

  14. Love the comments on this blog. This and Tandleman's blog are the only ones I can relate to at all these days

  15. I think Cookie may have a bit of a point about the sort of pubs that CAMRA campaigns for - although I think it's fair to add that the National Inventory does include a sprinkling of pubs that don't serve case beer.

    Good to see py back with a touch of light trolling - I was only thinking the other day we hadn't heard from him much recently.

  16. "Most beer drinkers drink lager"

    Only because the only other option tastes like drain water( Greene King IPA etc) and whose fault is that? CAMRA's.

  17. And again. Lovely stuff - pleased to have you back.

  18. If we're defending CAMRA you could say they are effective at a lot of what they are about.

    If you consider what a CAMRA pub is, you think of Free House, multi taps of cottage industry pong, authentic foreign beers, middle aged berghaus beardies. There is also important features it must not have. Karaoke, big TV's, the game, foster's lager.

    In my observation the CAMRA pub is in the ascendancy. They are growing against a declining market. CAMRA are winning in getting what they want.

    The question to ask Clarkey is if you look at the pubs in your branch, and 100 of them shut, all with the smooth flow and the Sky Sports and no twiggy beer. Then 20 of them re opened as multi cask ale freehouses, would your local members laugh or cry?

    I think CAMRA would consider more of what they like, less of what they don't like as a massive win.

  19. Cheers for the kind words, Jeff :-)

    Two others that are worth following, although not as prolific, are Paul Bailey and RedNev. Having said that, RedNev hasn't posted for a couple of months - I hope that doesn't signify something serious.

  20. @Cookie - to some extent, that's already happening. Pubs are increasingly for people who are enthusiastic about beer rather than being part of everyday life for "normal" people.

    A couple of years ago I took John Clarke to task for saying in Opening Times that "the local pub and beer scene is going from strength to strength" when at the time pubs were dropping like ninepins.

  21. Well while there has been a steady attrition in recent years (which seems to have bottomed out locally) I don't think there has been a time when local pubs were "dropping like nine pins".

  22. I like CAMRA pubs, they are my favourite sort. The ale is decent and not overpriced, the lager authentic. That and bergaus beardies don't knife you if you spill their pint. They are nice safe facsimiles. Nowt wrong with middle class CAMRA pubs.

    But some pub types seem to be growing and some are dying a death. The ones dying a death appear to be your actual proper boozers where people smoked and fighted and shagged behind the bins and scared the living bejesus out of nice middle class folk what with all the blood and teeth on the steps.

    So if we are looking at stats and seeing pub numbers going down or even up that really should not matter to beardies. Arguably they are winning the hearts and minds of punters who seem to like CAMRA pubs. Maybe because many people think of themselves as middle class even if they rent a flat and work in a call center. Whereas I'm working class and like puking in wetherpoons and fingering me lass on the night bus.

    But if you wanted to campaign for pubs in general, rather than CAMRA pubs, it would have to include all the pubs your average beardy disliked, and that ain't gonna happen.

    So you have this chaps report which is an accurate and balanced view of why the whole sector is in decline, but disagrees with CAMRA's approach because CAMRA and it's members don't really give two hoots about most of the pubs. They campaign for what their members care about, as it should be.

  23. From what I can see, Leeds is bucking the trend. Since Number One Son moved there I've had a few early doors hook ups with him and trade is brisk. Even the hipster bars (in particular one brewery tap where they sell ale north of £5.00/pint) have a footfall that many Landlords would die for.

  24. "....Two others that are worth following, although not as prolific, are Paul Bailey and RedNev. Having said that, RedNev hasn't posted for a couple of months - I hope that doesn't signify something serious...."

    Red Nev was offline a year or so ago with a computer problem. Hopefully this is the reason for not posting for 2 months now. RedNevs website has been one of my daily choices for a few years now. I miss the wit, humour and intelligent observations.

  25. @JohnMedd - the fact that pubs are thriving in city centres doesn't necessarily mean they are thriving in other types of area.

  26. That's true. While Manchester City Centre and some of the suburbs (Didsbury, Chorltom et al) have thriving pub scenes other parts of the inner-city have almost become pub-free zones.

  27. Thanks for the kind words, MerseyExile. I also miss RedNev’s site, and like you hope that it’s a recurrence of his computer problem causing his lack of posting, rather than something more serious.

    I’m not sure what I can bring to the discussion here as, like I’ve said before, I’m part of the problem in so much that I don’t visit pubs nearly as often as I did 20-30 years ago. Lout and footy-led pubs, as espoused by Cookie, are not my thing, but neither are pubs which insist on playing music at ear-shattering volumes.

    In the near future I will write a piece on what I look for in a good pub, rather than just slagging off what I don’t like.

  28. I miss Nev, he is great to wind up, hope he returns to get annoyed by terms like "beardy bastards"

  29. One stat that seems to be hotly disputed is the rate of pubco vs free house closures. Would be interesting to see where Snowden gets his stats from.

  30. I can't see why pubs that show football (like mine!) are such a problem. Fine, you might not like football, but you don't have to watch the screen. Yes, if the commentary's on full volume it might annoy you, but then so would loud music.

  31. I've written about this earlier this year.

    Obviously if a pub is showing Aston Villa vs Sunderland on a cold Monday night in February with the sound turned off, it makes little difference to anything. But the main problems I see are:

    (1) Football is allowed to completely dominate the pub, so you can't get away from it. It's not like the old days where you'd just have a portable TV in the public bar for the afternoon racing and the Cup Final. There's one pub near me that has recently been very well refurbished, but it has at least one screen, often more, in every area - about 15 in total.

    (2) Around here, we have two very well-supported clubs in City and United. Pretty much every weekend, at least one will feature in a televised match. And that will draw so much custom that anyone visiting the pub who doesn't want to watch the match will feel uncomfortable and out of place.

    Of course you can always avoid it, for example by going to Spoons, but I can't help feeling that the amount of business it generates for the trade as a whole is much exaggerated.

    Obviously it works well for some pubs, and I'm sure you will have thought through carefully the impact it will have on both the quantity and type of trade.

  32. "And that will draw so much custom ..."

    "the amount of business it generates for the trade as a whole is much exaggerated"


  33. It's the difference between the specific and the general, Cookie.

  34. Interesting thread. Nobody mentioned the internet, which many find very addictive (or legal highs and cannabis). When I walk home after work, I see through windows, people sitting with laptops on their, er, laps, presumably engrossed in Facebook, twitter, Youtube, porn, shopping or one of the myriad other diversions available. My original reason for stopping going to the pub was the smoking ban, but I've now switched to vaping and could probably find a vape-friendly pub if I wanted. I've just got out of the habit and it seems everyone I know has, smoker or not. The thought of going out of the house again, into the cold, doesn't appeal. I predict we'll end up like surburban USA - very few pubs, mainly pub-restaurants and most drink consumed at home - microbrewery beer being polular.


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. To combat persistent trolling, unregistered comments are liable to be deleted unless I recognise the author. If you intend to make more than the occasional comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.