Wednesday 27 July 2022

Hollowed out

Someone recently posted a picture on a local Facebook group of the Nip Inn in the shadow of the Lancashire Hill flats in Stockport. This former Boddingtons pub opened in 1970 and closed in 2001 so, while it had a fairly brief existence, it wasn’t as short-lived as some. In the general area of Lancashire Hill, which is partly Victorian terraced housing and partly modern redevelopment, I can remember visiting eight different pubs since I moved to Stockport in 1985. Only two still remain, the Grapes and the Navigation, both of which are older buildings rather than post-war ones.

This represents a common phenomenon that can be seen in most large towns and cities in Britain. There are still plenty of licensed premises in the centres, and very often the numbers have increased in recent years, although they don’t tend to be pubs as such. But, for a mile or two outside the centre, you will travel through a dead zone where, apart from the occasional survivor, pubs have entirely disappeared, even where there is plenty of housing. You have to travel a fair way out from Manchester’s Inner Ring Road along any of the main radial routes such as Rochdale Road, Oldham Road and Hyde Road, before you come across any at all. There is a stark example of this in this pub crawl from 1991 by the legendary Alan Winfield in which he visited 22 pubs across from Rusholme through Hulme to Old Trafford. Only one of these, Holt’s Claremont in Moss Side, still remains.

So what has happened to cause the pub stock in the inner cities to be so drastically hollowed out? There’s no simple monocausal explanation, but I will offer a few thoughts on the major factors behind it.

First, of course, there is the smoking ban. This disproportionately affected both wet-led pubs and working-class pubs, and so dealt a double whammy to inner-urban boozers. While the decline had set in well before 2007, it will have pushed many pubs over the edge.

Then there is the changing ethnic mix in many areas. Some years ago, left-wing beer bloviator Pete Brown worked himself up into a froth accusing those pointing this out of racism. But surely it is a simple fact of life that, if a growing proportion of the inhabitants do not drink alcohol for cultural or religious reasons (or at least do not drink in public), then the demand for pubs in those areas is going to decline. All of the traditional pubs in Rusholme in Manchester, famous for its “curry mile”, some of which were visited by Alan Winfield on his pub crawl, have now disappeared, and there are very few pubs left now in the inner areas of West Bradford.

Even if migrant populations do drink, such as many from Eastern Europe, the ambiance of a down-at-heel boozer may have little to appeal to them, and putting a Tyskie tap on the bar is unlikely to do much to change that.

There is a wider point about the dislocation of communities. A local pub isn’t just a retail outlet for the sale of alcohol, it depends on cultivating a sense of belonging for its success. Sometimes areas of traditional terraced housing were demolished, leaving the pubs still standing in splendid isolation. Or new housing was built without, at least initially, any pubs to serve them. Often, new modern-style pubs were built in the 60s and 70s, but this category of pub in inner-urban areas must have suffered one of the highest rates of attrition of all. They never seemed to have the appeal of the ones they replaced. More recently, there has been a marked densification of housing in these areas, but the days of planners designating plots for brewers to build pubs have long gone, and by and large they remain pub deserts. New local pubs and bars have not tended to spring up to cater for the residents of all the new housing.

It’s no coincidence that, as you head out of Manchester to the east, once you reach the areas of Gorton and Openshaw where much of the traditional terraced housing still survives, so does a fair scattering of Victorian pubs, although even here they have noticeably thinned out in recent decades.

When I first bought a pint of bitter on my own account in 1976, it cost 21p. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator that would have been £1.14 in 2021 money, but you’ll struggle to find a pint for twice that now. This tool has recently been rebased to CPI, which to my mind somewhat understates historic inflation. When it was based on RPI, the figure was more like £1.50. But the point still stands that, over the years, the price of beer sold in pubs has increased by considerably more than the general level of inflation. In contrast, off-trade beer has done no more than keep pace with it, leading to a considerable increase in the price differential between the two. This will have a particular impact in areas with lower than average incomes.

There has been a marked increase in the use of illegal drugs of various kinds in inner-city areas in recent decades. This obviously offers an alternative, and often cheaper, route to intoxication than drinking in the local pub. And pubs have often been caught in the crossfire of turf wars between criminal gangs seeking to control the drugs trade. The threat of violence and intimidation will deter responsible customers, and in many cases has been the trigger for the licence being withdrawn.

Another change in the pub scene over the past thirty years has been the rise of televised football on pay-TV. On the one hand, this gives pubs a USP that they didn’t have before, and certainly some do good business out of it. But it also creates a monoculture that squeezes out other activities, and may have been a factor in the decline of the darts and pool leagues that once provided a lot of bread-and-butter trade to urban pubs. And, if one of your circle has Sky TV, it may well be a more appealing option to gather in their gaff for the big match with a slab of Carling – plus you can enjoy a smoke while you’re at it.

I’ve discussed before how the pattern of drinking in pubs has dramatically changed over the years. People are much less interested in just popping in for a quick one or two, and tend to look for something more in a pub visit. Given this, the homely local loses its appeal, and they are much more tempted by the bright lights of the town or city centre, which anyway are only a short bus or taxi ride away. Stockport Market Place is only ten minutes’ walk from the Lancashire Hill flats (although it is uphill coming back). Manchester city centre within the Inner Ring Road probably has more licensed venues now than it has had for a hundred years, but it is surrounded by a two-mile doughnut where pubs and bars are extremely sparse.

As I said earlier, there is no single factor that has led to the decline of these pubs, and there is probably something significant that I have overlooked and someone will point out. But it’s an undeniable fact that the inner-urban working-class local, once one of the mainstays of the pub trade, has seen a dramatic fall in its importance. And that is where a lot of the two-thirds of on-trade beer volumes that have been lost since the late 70s has disappeared from.

Tuesday 12 July 2022

Fifteen years

Today marks the 15th anniversary of this blog. Rather fittingly, the very first post was one about Bansturbation, which has remained a consistent theme throughout. That was very much the high summer of beer blogging, and also saw the foundation of blogs by Boak and Bailey and Tandleman which are still going, although many others have fallen by the wayside. The demise of blogging has often been declared, although I see many commentators have taken to Substack, which is basically the same thing under a different name.

The creation of this blog was prompted by the smoking ban in indoor public places, which was introduced in England on 1 July 2007. I said pretty much all that needed to be said on its tenth anniversary, and there is nothing there from which I would dissent. In the words of Lord Stoddart of Swindon, quoted in the sidebar, “This piece of legislation must be one of the most restrictive, spiteful and socially divisive imposed by any British Government.”

It had a disastrous effect on wet-led local pubs. While the immediate impact has long since worked its way through the system, it has left the pub trade permanently weaker than it otherwise would have been. And, as Christopher Snowdon writes, it was taken as a green light for all kinds of other lifestyle restrictions, although more recently the slippery slope seems to have pointed more towards food than alcohol, which is something I would not have predicted in 2007.

The photo above shows a sign still displayed on the door of the Griffin Hotel in Heaton Mersey, just down the road from me, which must have been there for at least fifteen years. This was one of the large number of pubs that did provide facilities for those who preferred a non-smoking environment.

I don’t propose to offer a summary of the developments of the past fifteen years, although suffice to say in the sphere of pubs and beer they have mostly been negative, with thousands of pubs shutting their doors for the last time. The number of pubs in Britain has now fallen to a record low and, while the BBPA seem to have ceased publishing their regular statistical updates, so has the quantity of beer sold in them.

One closure that affected me on a personal level was that of the Four Heatons (originally the Moss Rose), which was built in the early 1970s and bit the dust at the beginning of 2011. This was one of only two pubs within easy walking distance of my house and, while externally in an unattractive Brutalist style, it had a comfortable interior, and I had plenty of good times in there. It has now been replaced by a convenience store, originally Morrisons, now Co-op.

And the other pub, which was always my favourite of the two, has become progressively less appealing through a steady accretion of minor changes to the extent that I rarely go in it except to deliver the local CAMRA magazine.

I have tried via my Campaign for Real Pubs blog, which I began in September 2011, to highlight some of the characterful traditional pubs that are still out there to be enjoyed, although one or two have closed or been unsympathetically modernised since I wrote about them.

One positive development I will mention is the campaign to promote Draught Bass, the definitive beer of England, which sadly has fallen on hard times, seemingly unloved by the brand owners and seeing its distribution dramatically contract. This has been entirely a grassroots movement that has bypassed both the brewing industry and, with few exceptions, the great and good of beer commentary. This year it was finally possible to organise the first National Bass Day, after two previous attempts had been stymied by lockdowns.

Will there be another fifteen years? Only time will tell...

Incidentally, “Fifteen Years” is the title of this rather rousing song by The Levellers, although it always seems to me a touch hypocritical when potheads go on about the evils of drink.

Sunday 3 July 2022

Rapid feedback

Last weekend there was a Channel 4 programme in the “Inside the Superbrands” series looking at Guinness. I can’t say I was expecting too much from a rather tabloidy format, but in fact it turned out to be surprisingly insightful. Plus it was presently by Carlisle-born Helen Skelton, who has an unmistakeably Northern accent.

One thing that took me by surprise was that it featured the Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter account (suitably censored), which highlights poor examples of Guinness served around the capital – see photo above. You might have thought this was bad publicity, but in fact a Guinness representative said that “as soon as we see a post on that account, we aim to be round there within four hours”. It’s performing a valuable quality control function.

And I couldn’t help thinking that cask beer wouldn’t half benefit from quality control that even remotely approached that standard. Obviously it’s different in that Guinness is a single product produced by a single company, but far too often the presentation of cask in pubs is utterly dreadful. Maybe a representative of Cask Marque should follow Martin Taylor on his GBG ticking travels and take action whenever he has to pour one in a plant pot, which seems to happen a lot more often than it should.

There has been some discussion recently over the negative image of cask, but surely its poor presentation is its major problem. All too often, outside familiar pubs, it’s a total lottery. I’ll just offer two examples.

On my trip to Berkshire in May, I was taken to a pub that isn’t in the current Good Beer Guide, but has a pretty decent reputation. Two different beers came out as total soup and were returned. If you have to return two successive pints, you start feeling like a pernickety arse, and on similar occasions in the past I’ve cut my losses and asked for a refund. Eventually we got a good, clear pint, but you shouldn’t have to go through that.

More recently, I went in a pub that had a single cask beer on one of three handpumps. It came out nice and cool, but once I took it back to my seat it was obviously pretty opaque, so it went straight back. “It’s the end of the barrel, but we’re just putting another one on. It’ll be ready in a few minutes”. Fifteen minutes later, it wasn’t, so I settled for a John Smith’s. Perhaps, on reflection, I should have had a Guinness.

I persevere with cask, because I know how good it is when it’s properly kept, but it’s understandable that plenty of others are very wary.

Another problem is that many people who write about cask beer and sing its praises only tend to drink it in “recommended” outlets, so don’t get to share the experience of the typical drinker out in the wild.

Saturday 2 July 2022

Giving with one hand?

Yesterday, it was reported that the government were considering a temporary cut in the standard rate of VAT from 20% to 17½% to provide some relief from the cost of living crisis. There’s much to be said for this both in reducing the pressure on household budgets and giving hard-pressed businesses a little financial headroom.

However, people need to be careful what they wish for. Something very similar was done in December 2008 as a response to the financial crisis, when the standard rate was reduced from the then 17½% to 15%. However, at the same time the rates of alcohol, tobacco and fuel duties were increased to offset the VAT cut, as it was felt that buyers of these “undesirable” products should not benefit. But when VAT was restored to 17½% in January 2010, the duties were not cut again, resulting in what was in effect a stealth increase.

If the same were to be repeated this time, it would represent a kick in the teeth for the hospitality trade and negate much of the benefit. At least it would probably be politically impossible to raise fuel duty when prices are at record levels, but the poor old smokers would no doubt end up being kicked in the wallet yet again.

If any such policy is announced, it will be very important to read the small print below the headline.