Saturday, 11 January 2020

A question of more or less

You can just go in for a drink, but would you call it a pub?
I recently linked to a Guardian editorial praising the British pub, which mentioned that, after years of decline, the number of pubs in the country had actually increased in the past year. The detailed story can be found here in the same newspaper.
The decline of the British pub may be at an end, according to official figures showing that the number of pubs has increased for the first time this decade.

The UK ended March 2019 with 39,135 pubs, 320 more than a year earlier, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It is the first net increase since 2010.

The rise marked a dramatic turnaround compared with the previous nine years, during which the UK pub network declined by an average of 732 each year, comparable data showed.

I have to say I’m distinctly sceptical about what this is actually telling us. It all hinges, of course, on how “pub” is actually defined. It is certainly true that, in the past two or three years, the rate of closures of existing pubs, which had been vertiginous in the years immediately following 2007, has distinctly slowed. It hasn’t entirely come to a stop, though, with, for example, one prominent pub in Stockport apparently going to close for redevelopment later this month.

On the other hand, made possible by post-2005 changes in licensing laws, there has been a growth in the number of new drinking establishments. This doesn’t just include micropubs, but a whole swathe of new bars in various formats, very often in former shop premises. We recently did a crawl around Stockport Market Place where four of the eight establishments visited had opened fairly recently, three in the preceding twelve months. It would be entirely credible that Stockport has more licensed premises than it did twelve months previously.

Another, less-recognised, factor may be the reclassification of existing premises. The changes in licensing laws have made it easier and more attractive for other types of establishment – restaurants, social clubs and residential hotels – to obtain full on-licences so the general public can, if they want just go in there for a drink. Added to this, many new places that once would have clearly fallen into the category of restaurants now choose to define themselves as “restaurant and bar” or similar terminology, even if their primary purpose is still the serving of meals. It is perceived as being more modern and informal. Figures were recently published showing an increase in the number of “pubs” in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. As Scottish licensing law is not so conducive to the opening of new small bars, and the general climate there is hardly a fertile one for new stand-alone pubs, this kind of reclassification must be a major factor.

In many ways, all of this has been a positive development. It allows the market to function to provide new drinking establishments of a type and in locations that people actually want, and it opens up existing premises to a wider clientele. But what it has done is to blur the boundaries between different types of businesses. Go back twenty years, and if someone referred to a pub it would have been pretty clear what they were talking about. Now it is much less obvious.

Many of the pubs that have been converted to Indian or Chinese restaurants over the past two decades will have retained their full licences, so in theory you can just go in for a drink, but their body language very clearly states “eatery”. Just off Stockport Market Place, there’s a new establishment called Vinabod which describes itself as a “Viking-themed tapas bar”. I’m not knocking it – you have to commend their enterprise – but how many people would really think of it as a pub, even though you don’t have to eat. Over the summer, I had lunches in a couple of cafés when on holiday, both of which also served alcoholic drinks, one even having a couple of keg taps. Go back twenty years, and that wouldn’t have been the case.

This doesn’t mean, though, that everything blurs into one, and words lose their meaning. Pub, bar, hotel, social club, restaurant and café are all separate concepts that carry very different connotations. The boundaries may be blurred, and there may be a considerable area of overlap, but it shouldn’t be inferred that the distinctions no longer exist. A year or so, I wrote about the difference between a pub and a bar. Legally, there may well be none, but they still occupy very distinct spaces in people’s minds. Indeed, as I pointed out, some bars took exception to being classified alongside pubs, as they thought it put across an undesirably stuffy image.

Now, I don’t know how many of these new styles of establishment are included within the headline total of “pubs”, as the definition has not been given. But we need to very careful about assuming that the reported rise in the headline number actually does represent any kind of renaissance of pubs as generally understood. Maybe we need a new term to encompass the whole variety of different establishments that now possess full on-licences. It may be a business success story, but it isn’t necessarily a pub success story.

10 comments:

  1. I imagine the article covers all conceivable drinking establishments, there has been a notable and rapid increase in micropubs, craft bars and brewery taps in the last couple of years or so, I don't personally mind this, I would say the "traditional pub" is still very much on the decline.

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    1. I meant to add "sadly" to the last sentence.

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  2. The latest of several new 'pubs' to open near me is a small surf clothing shop called Longsands Apres Cafe Bar that has a new full on-licence. When I say small, it's definitely a contender for smallest licence premises in the UK. Places like this are certainly skewing the figures.

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  3. The point was made on Twitter that there may be a failure of communication between councils' licensing and planning departments, so that independent premises describing themselves as "restaurant and bar" may actually be trading under use class A3 "Food and drink" rather than A4 "Drinking establishments".

    I spotted one this morning on my local shopping parade that describes itself as "Ristorante and Cocktail Bar". I wonder what its planning permission says. But it certainly isn't a pub.

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    1. I'm not sure there would be a failure of communication, just that premises licences for alcohol retailers don't distinguish between the classification of premises and licensing departments don't check the class of the premises. As an example, a home-based Amazon seller of rare whisky would need a premises licence, and they'd get it as long as there was no conflict with local licensing objectives.

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  4. Ah, it's that oh-so-hard to define question. Oh crumbs, at a guess, I’d say that anyone over, let’s say, 40 (although younger readers on here may illustrate that this age is an inaccurate guess, which I accept it may well be), if blindfolded and taken into an establishment and then the blindfold removed, would be able to tell within a micro-second whether the place was a pub, a bar or a club. How? Dunno. It’s instinctive – that “engraved on the heart” thing that the Guardian mentioned in their article (but clearly didn’t quite understand themselves). But there IS a difference between the three, and anyone over a certain age will be able to discern it, whereas I would posit that anybody under that “certain age” won’t. It certainly doesn’t depend on the age of the establishment. There were some very ropey pubs built back in the 1970s alongside big new housing estates, which had not a jot of tradition about them but which were undoubtedly pubs. Similarly, many of the old establishments, if they’re still standing, have long ago been converted into something else – hotels, public amenity spaces, museums, flats, etc – but are quite obviously not pubs any more. Equally, the very new ones now opening – micro-pubs and gastro-pubs – may well be a welcome addition to the market, but they nevertheless they still aren’t pubs. That’s why the Guardian's article was plain wrong – it shouldn’t have been about signs of improvements in the “pub trade” but should have been about signs of improvement in the “licenced trade.” Don’t get me wrong – I think that these improvements are a hopeful sign and I hope they continue, but for those of us for whom the British pub IS “engraved on their hearts” that’s what grates about rosy-cheeked little articles like that one. I suspect that most of the writers at the Guardian simply fall under the necessary "certain age" (whatever age that is!), and that's why they can't make the distinction between pubs and "anywhere else that sells booze for on-premises consumption." What a shame it is that there is a whole generation of work-age adults out there who can't tell the difference. That, it seems, is one of the biggest losses from our unique British culture - not just pubs themselves, but the awareness of what a pub actually is that goes along with their very existence.

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  5. I am over 70 and whilst I have no difficulty in recognizing what is a obviously a pub, I find it much harder to decide what isn't a pub.
    For example the micro pub in my home town, despite having unisex toilets, has all the characteristics of a pub being crowded with locals. Whereas the big Robinson's house which meets all 'Mudges criteria for a pub is more like a large empty barn with very few regulars.
    And both pubs in the next town are primarily restaurants but have a set of regulars who have annexed a corner of the bar.

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  6. What is clearly needed is a tight specific definition you can't ever change. Like the one for real ale.

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  7. Vinabod, the Viking-themed tapas bar in Stockport, has now closed. Mind you, charging £4 a pint - twice the price of the nearby Boar's Head - it's perhaps not entirely surprising.

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    1. you'll have to go in the food hall for a rip off craft beer, fella.

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