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.

30 comments:

  1. No shortage of pubs going South out of Stockport on the A6

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    1. But plenty have closed on Hillgate, which was the original main road and where most of the pubs were.

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    2. Perhaps that is because it is no longer the main road. The new main road has plenty of pubs and all the villages on it are quite wet

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    3. You are being deliberately perverse there. This effect doesn’t necessarily apply to every single radial axis of a town, and the A6 to the south doesn’t pass through the kind of areas of industry and working-class housing that I am referring to. There is no shortage of closed pubs in Edgeley, Brinksway, Heaton Norris and Portwood.

      There are few pubs along the A6 anyway. Taking the Town Hall as the southern boundary of the town centre, we then pass the long-closed Brookfield. The new road rejoins the old at the Blossoms, and beyond that are the Bamford Arms, which is now essentially a hotel and a restaurant, and the Duke of York. By the time we reach the Dog & Partridge in Great Moor we are in a different settlement and entirely outside the inner-urban area.

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  2. In Newport the Estate Pubs have almost gone, the problems there include supermarket prices cheaper and the estates becoming notorious for drugs and the pubs suffering as such. The Friendship in Ringland became known as the Battleship, the Open Hearth as the Open Heart, both closed, the latter demolished. The Centurion in St Julians, another build at a base of a tower block and another empty building to spontaneously combust was demolished recently. One estate pub that appears to be doing well is the Gaer Inn, then it's in a converted C19th farmhouse and the estate is not as bad as some in Newport

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  3. You complain about missing pubs and also pubs being refurbished.Never happy.

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  4. Good piece Mudgie. Thinking of my area, every estate pub in Langley - and probably the same in Darnhill - has gone. Many of the key arterial roads have been stripped or denuded of pubs. Many of course have succumbed to changes in lifestyle as you outline and of course, the increase in cost of beer compared to inflation, is an obvious cause too. Many poorer drinkers simply can't afford to go to even grotty pubs wheer beer might be (relatively) cheaper any more.

    One point I do think you miss out on in your excellent analysys is that of our old friend the Beer Orders. The continual adding of debt to businesses that were on the whole debt free, over the years since they came in - and the subsequent passing on of costs to customers - has certainly pushed marginal pubs over the edge, particularly where they can be sold for alternative purposes at a profit -or rather, a reduction in company debt.

    On the whole pubs - with notable exceptiomns of course - have lost a degree of their local affinity which kept many open. A combination of many of the factor that you have already identified.

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    1. Anonymous -for some reason - is me.

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    2. The Beer Orders undoubtedly shifted many of these pubs into the ownership of companies with less commitment to keeping them going, and less ability to do so. But they were already offloading them before - remember the estate of crappy pubs built up locally by Belhaven in the late 80s?

      Having said that, I don't think the family brewers have shown much more commitment to them either, although Holts are still persevering with the Claremont.

      The issues with "overspill" estates like Langley, while there are many similarities, are not entirely the same as those of inner-urban areas. All four pubs in Brinnington in Stockport have been gone for some time.

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  5. The Stafford Mudgie28 July 2022 at 18:53

    You've prompted me to think about the twenty-five Stafford pubs built from 1910 onwards beyond the town centre but within the two mile radius of Market Square that's now the boundary of the town's built up area. Ten have closed and fifteen are still open.
    Half of the eight built up to 1938 have closed despite all but one of them being on an A road.
    Six of the seven opened from 1940 to 1966 have closed but these, other than the Albion as a rebuild of a Victorian street corner local, were all classic 'Estate Pubs' and built some distance from an A road.
    Somehow all ten of the pubs opened from 1967 onwards, seven of them on or within sight of an A road and three not, are still open. The first five of these, to 1990, are classic 'Estate Pubs', the three of 1997 to 2004 are at or close to M6 junctions 13 or 14 and the two recent ones, of 2014 and 2015, are Greene King and Marstons family dining pubs.
    I wholeheartedly agree with Tandleman about the effects of the Beer Orders and it's no coincidence that Banks's, who only had a small presence in the Bass and Allied dominated town when I moved here in 1973, are responsible for three of the still open pubs, the 1961 Holmcroft, 1990 Oxleathers and 2015 Knot and Plough. Of Bass Charrington's eleven 1910 to 1966 pubs nearly fifty years ago only three survive, the 1917 Waggon and Horses, 1928 Royal Oak and 1938 Trumpet ( Radford Bank Inn ). Allied's 1961 Crossbow ( Lynton Tavern ) and 1963 Staffordshire Yeoman ( West Way ) have been demolished with only their 1934 Gate surviving, rescued by Dorbiere and now their Metropolitan Bar.
    Stafford has a diverse population but isn't known for having many inhabitants who do not drink alcohol for cultural or religious reasons and one pub was actually affectionately known for many years as the Cottage by the Ganges because of its many customers of Asian decent. I am actually very fortunate that my nearest pub, the 1983 Morris Man, has been revitalised by Nepalese lessees. Its Bar is as busy as I've known it in thirty years while the scarcely used Lounge now, in my opinion, offers by far the best food in town - that couldn't have happened had it been built as a single room which would have happened not many years later - and, unlike ten years ago, there's always a real ale or two on.

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    1. Thanks for that detailed analysis, Paul. I don't really know Stafford outside the town centre, but it sounds as though it has experienced the same pattern of pub closures that I described in the blog.

      It's a good point that *some* migrant populations have enhanced the pub trade.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie30 July 2022 at 08:57

      T'other Mudgie,
      Yes, you know several Stafford pubs within the half mile radius but I'm not recommending another trip for those I've mentioned as surviving between a half and two miles.
      I agreed with Tandleman about the Beer Orders, and the three Banks's pubs remaining open (100%) while only four of fourteen (28½%) former Bass and Allied pubs survive is surely evidence of that, but maybe equally important is that most of those 1910 to 1966 pubs were very large with substantial car parks and many of the sites just became too valuable for other uses. An example of this was Allied's 1963 Staffordshire Yeoman owned by Spirit Inns ten years ago which, helped by what was described as "a year of bad management", closures and "an arson attack later in 2015 gutting the building", was replaced by eighteen apartments and fourteen houses, 32 homes in all that were probably nearly as profitable for Punch as the care home for the elderly with 56 bedrooms that was their earlier and refused planning application.
      The town centre is of course so different from 'the suburbs'. Recent years have seen Stafford gaining over a dozen new town centre pubs, from micropubs to Tim's macrovenues, but all of them, other than the 2007 Yates's now Stonegate's The Yard, were conversions of existing buildings, not that there's anything wrong with that, and so were very much opened "on the cheap" compared to all those proper pubs built during the twentieth century.
      The first Asian licensee I remember was in Wolverhampton's Posada fifty years ago. Recent examples include Bradford's Castle and Birmingham's Hen and Chickens, both pubs I would like to return to.

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  6. I'm sure Wetherspoons had a hand in the demise of the estate pub, I'm sure thats where the laters clientele will now be found, the drug and crime rates associated with certain areas where these pubs once thrived would not have helped either.

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    1. I suppose if you're a codger with a bus pass heading for the Spoons in the town centre is a cheaper option.

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    2. And legally open for breakfast.

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  7. Thurston McCrew29 July 2022 at 15:32

    I've never taken Pete Brown seriously since he threw his toys out of the pram over some misunderstanding about a missing sign in an American bar.A bad case of the Don't You Know Who I Ams.

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  8. A couple of points that people have made on Twitter. One is improved home entertainment options, which has certainly had an impact on pubs in general, but I don't think disproportionately on inner-urban pubs.

    The other is pressure from developers, but I think in most cases this doesn't apply. The inner-urban pubs have in general closed down through lack of trade, and the sites may have been redeveloped at a later date, or may still remain vacant. The site of the Nip Inn has never been built on, and the Three Crowns further up Manchester Road remains derelict a good fifteen years after it closed down.

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    1. Robinsons seem to prefer to see a closed pub fall down rather than develop the site.
      Swan at New Mills Newtown and Grove in Buxton the Unity in Stockport spring to mind.

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    2. The Unity has been converted to flats.

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    3. I had some good times in the Three Crowns, it was a thriving; lively and big Boddingtons pub. One of my favourite stop-offs when going down Stockport on a Friday night in the fabulous 1980s.

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  9. Did Pete Brown really accuse people who attributed cultural change in some areas as a factor in pub closures of being racist? Really? He's a very silly boy if he did.

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    1. He did a blogpost about it. And then deleted it when several people pointed out why he was wrong, so the evidence is no longer there.

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  10. The Stafford Mudgie31 July 2022 at 15:44

    "First, of course, there is the smoking ban".
    So a Press Release from South Hertfordshire dated 20th February 2007 headed "MILLIONS WILL RETURN TO THE PUB AFTER SMOKING BAN" didn't quite get it right !
    I think the 1989 Beer Orders did even more damage.

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    1. The beer orders transferred ownership of pub businesses from vertically integrated breweries to pub operating businesses of various sizes. The breweries frequently closed pubs which they deemed to be unprofitable,see Christopher Hutt The Death of the English Pub (1972) and I do not believe that the rate of closure taking into account social changes would have been much different without the beer orders. I believe that the smoking ban together with the social changes had the most impact

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  11. A most interesting read, Mudgie. I'm thinking why I don't frequent pubs now. May be mates moving on, dying off, may be Covid, may be just too busy. Have to think on't.

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  12. Being in a rural area we have some lovely old pubs, but they survive by having become what are essentially restaurants, some quite 'upmarket' rather than pub grub and remodeled for the food trade. But the combination of smoking ban, drink driving laws, price, home entertainment options, phones rather than meetings, workforces being diverse and spread - they no longer walk home and stop together for a pint en route. All these factors work against people popping out for a pint at the local.

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  13. An excellent read. Role of smoking ban still much misunderstood and understated.

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  14. I would add one more factor: the rise of 'student areas' is some inner cities (like the part of Leicester where I live), encouraged by the buy-to-let boom i.e. students living in terraced housing, rather than purpose-built student accommodation. This has the consequence that a significance portion of the local population leave during the holidays, lowering demand on a seasonal basis. The current generation of students (which is also the largest there has been) seem pretty price conscious to me, and significance portion not that interested in drinking at all. Leicester University hasn't had a Student Union bar for well over a decade, for example.

    [I do think PC underestimates lifestyle changes as a factor though - as one of the key things to explain is why the late Victorians needed that many pubs in the first place.]

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  15. Really interesting read. Living in Bradford I would agree that cultural changes in this City's demographic can significantly alter the pub going numbers of an area. Indeed, to argue otherwise would be an insult to anyone's intelligence. Obviously the smoking ban has done huge damage to the industry. Finally I think the introduction of minimum the wage, albeit a very positive step has contributed to the decline.

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