You can just go in for a drink, but would you call it a pub?
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.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.
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.
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.