Sunday, 24 September 2017

Survival of the fittest

Although the pace has slackened a bit in the past couple of years, pub closures are still very much with us. It seems that, whenever a pub closes, someone will say “Well, it wasn’t much cop, anyway, was it?” Apparently, it’s only the crap pubs that close, and good ones have nothing to fear. Well, in a sense that is true. In an environment where the supply of pubs exceeds the demand, inevitably it’s going to be the less well run pubs, those that don’t appeal enough to potential customers, that fall by the wayside. But it’s confusing the particular with the general.

Looking at the wider picture, the overall demand for what pubs offer has significantly declined over the past couple of decades. Obviously that is going to lead to closures, and by definition it’s, broadly speaking, the worse pubs that will close. But that doesn’t mean they’ve closed because they’re bad. The number of closures is determined by the general demand; the specifics of the closures by pub quality. As I wrote here, even if all pubs achieved the standards of the best, it wouldn’t in practice have knocked more than a couple of percentage points off the total number of closures. Back in the 1970s, the average quality of pub was probably much worse than it is now, but they did a lot more business.

There are also other factors at work, the most important of which is location. Indifferent pubs will survive in favourable locations, while with the best will in the world good pubs will struggle in places where the local demand has fallen off a cliff. Some pubs will fall victim to compulsory purchase schemes that are no fault of their own. Some will have much more redevelopment potential than others, and there’s also the willingness of the pubs’ owners to sell them off for alternative use. There may also be factors that encourage long-term loyalty amongst customers even if the current offer is indifferent, including, for example, association with a particular group who regularly meet there, or having historical interest.

As a general rule, there are few pub closures that truly come out of the blue, where you say “Wow! I really didn’t see that coming!” To be honest, as I’ve written before, some pubs have the “smell of death” about them for some time before closure. On the other hand, plenty of pubs seem to stagger on for years without having much going for them because there’s little appetite to develop them into something else, smaller landlocked pubs in run-down secondary shopping areas being a particular case in point.

It’s rather like the oft-repeated mantra that “there are no dangerous roads, only dangerous drivers”, which really is one of the most unhelpful messages ever put out on the subject of road safety. Of course, in a narrow sense, the vast majority of road accidents, excluding those caused by mechanical failure, are the result of road user error. But statistics show that there are some locations, and stretches of road, that see far more accidents than others. This isn’t because road users are suddenly possessed by some kind of mania, but because they offer much more potential to make mistakes and are less forgiving when people do.

So, while the ability of individual road users shouldn’t be ignored, very often eliminating causes of risk. making roads more self-explanatory and mitigating the consequences of error are the most effective ways of reducing casualties. A prime example of this is installing central reservation crash barriers on motorways, which it may astonish younger readers to learn were unknown in the eary 1960s. Saying “only bad drivers have crashes” is no more useful or accurate than saying “only bad pubs close”.


  1. This is why it will always be village/rural pubs that close first, before town centre pubs, due to a smaller catchment area/potential clientele and of course people are less inclined to drive to out of the way pubs. It means that village/rural areas with many pubs often lose most of the pubs in a short space of time, with only the best one surviving - and even that is not guaranteed. A situation that be exacerbated if public transport links in the area are sparse/non-existent. City/Town centres could feasibly become the only place where a large choice of pubs are still available. But even that is not guaranteed as Towns and Cities often suffer slumps as they become run-down and/or massive redevelopment takes place.

    Another factor I think is the neverending drive for more houses/apartments in Towns/Cities and 'commuter-belt' areas. The majority of people would not choose to live near a pub due to the potential for noise. Therefore, in areas of such redevelopment, such pubs could fall foul of nearby residents complaining of noise and/or bad behaviour. Resulting in publicans who run such premises deciding it is simply too much hassle to try to keep everyone happy - especially in light of over-zealous council officials.

    But hey, that's just my thoughts on the matter.

    1. I live on the coast just outside Newcastle and certainly in Tyneside and Northumberland it's the town centre and urban pubs that have shut - wholesale where I live - while the village and rural pubs are generally not doing too badly, albeit most of them are now food led.

  2. Let’s suppose you are correct. Then the following question arises. Not what to do about it but why do anything about it?

    If the demand for pubs is being met then there are enough pubs. That number may fall for one generation, rise for another but fundamentally the market is working in allocating capital according to peoples wants and needs. Knocking down pubs where they are not required and building them where they are.

    If people want fewer pubs but more housing then the market is allocating the resources towards that with money being the tool to allocate resource.

    Drinkers needs are being met. There are pubs that welcome kids, pubs that don’t. Pubs with lots of different beer, food pubs at all price points. Pubs with £2 pints to pubs with £13.40 pints. I can even find pubs in walking distance that stock products I enjoyed on my travels to other countries but were not historically usual products available in British pubs. I can go out and drink whatever I fancy. There does not need to be more pubs than you yourself can go in.

    This generation doesn’t seem to want grocers, butchers, churches or pubs to anything like the previous. Some of the building that house these are nice. I like looking round an old churches despite never considering going to a service. Maybe they need a business model to fund them beyond service goers and ought to charge tourists like me. If pubs have an architectural merit that cannot be sustained commercially then they need another business model or your national trust of pubs needs to get its arse in gear.

    Maybe future ones will want more pubs, but that will be their choice.

  3. Here (which is London and South East) the property value aspect is often key, completely subsuming whether one is dealing with an intrinsically 'good' or 'bad' pub (whatever those rather subjective categorisations may mean). Entirely viable pubs, trading well and making money, can disappear because they have the misfortune to be sat on sites worth far more rented for alternative use to major retail chains with deep pockets, or sold for housing development or flat conversion.

    1. But if a pub is *more* viable as something else, that represents a better allocation of economic resources. And that doesn't mean that the South-East is going to become devoid of pubs, or indeed restaurants, shops or hairdressers, it's just that they will be in locations that aren't worth more for alternative use.

    2. Whilst agreeing that economics rules - why should site owners continue to retain pubs on their land when they can make more in other ways - it will eventually mean there are indeed no pubs in certain areas; and it won't be because many people in those areas didn't want a local pub or use their pub. I don't see an answer in truth, but it still makes me sad to see.

    3. It won't mean there are no pubs, but that they will increasingly be concentrated in either small High Street premises or former retail units that aren't vulnerable to residential redevelopment.

    4. Yes, that's why said "in certain areas". It'll be more and more the residential areas where people live that will be devoid of pubs. Wouldn't wish to over-romanticise 'the local', as there are elements of 'Golden Age' myth making in the ways they are portrayed and how we like to remember them. It is hard to judge how much the pub is changing because not enough people still want to 'drop in for a pint' as part of everyday life; and how much because there are fewer and fewer on the corner of a street one lives near, so the pub becomes a trip into the town centre , or out to the retail estate. In making that effort going to the pub becomes a more occasional event; and it needs more than a pint or two to justify - so unless there's a meal involved... and we're in to dining pub country. The habit has gone. Did it go because we no longer wanted to do it anyway? Or did it go because The Jolly Brewers down the road is now a bijou flat development?
      Hey ho, let's crack open another bottle/can in front of the TV.

  4. I've argued fairly vociferously for some years in favour of 'fewer, but better' pubs, if that's what it takes for good pubs to survive.

    But, there is a counter argument that, even if it doesn't fully persuade me, nags at the hind quarters of my brain from time to time which is:

    Even if good pubs don't close, good pubs can become bad ones and then close; and bad pubs can become good ones (and then not only avoid the prospect of closure but actually become worth drinking in again).

    My failure to wholeheartedly accept this logic is probably down to my fascination with disused buildings and the stories behind them. Even the most boring pub/station/church/hospital/S&M dungeon suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when derilect.


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