Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 2000
* Spread Your Wings *
Could Wetherspoon's breathe new life into our struggling suburban and estate pubs?
McDonalds have applied for planning permission to turn the Royal Oak on Altrincham Road, Baguley, into a drive-thru (sic) restaurant. The pub has been closed and boarded for months, and even before that it was run-down and clearly failing. But it has a prominent location on a busy road with frequent bus services, and was probably the nearest pub for several thousand people, many of whom will now have no pub within easy walking distance.
It may be something of a shock to see this happening in Manchester, but it is a story that has been repeated on the outskirts of major towns and cities all over the country, where big, once-thriving pubs have been converted into fast food outlets. The decline of pubs on estates and in suburban areas away from main shopping streets is one of the biggest areas of crisis in the British pub scene. These are pubs typically with numerous chimneypots nearby, and good public transport links, so it cannot exclusively be laid at the door of drink-driving crackdowns, although that does play some part. But of that decline there is no doubt.
The shadow of McDonalds is also rumoured to hang over another prominent, well-known, local pub that is five minutes' walk from a well-served railway station, and right next door to one of South Manchester's major bus interchanges. There are plenty of other pubs in the area such as the Mauldeth, the Kingsway and the Conway in Cheadle Hulme, that currently are clearly falling well short of their potential, despite a large potential customer base.
But help may be at hand. I was interested recently while looking through a list of Wetherspoon's outlets on what is probably the best pub-operator website I have come across (www.jdwetherspoon.co.uk), to spot the recently-opened Moon Under Water on Old Fallings Lane, Wolverhampton 10. Now, I don't know that area well, but it's clear from the map that it's in precisely the kind of location I'm talking about. Whether it's a new pub, or a conversion of an existing failing one, I'm not sure, but it may be the harbinger of a new trend.
Wetherspoon's were undoubtedly the most successful pub operators of the 90s. They're not perfect, but they do a lot of things right, and they have brought a breath of fresh air to the pub scene, particularly in places like Longsight. They have also almost single-handedly reclaimed urban pubs for the over-30s. But so far they have in general limited their operations to locations in city and town centres and busy suburban high streets where they can be assured of a heavy pedestrian traffic past the door.
They must now be running out of new sites that fit their existing business plan, so if they want to expand further, could they not do it by breathing new life into our under-performing suburban pubs? I'm sure that a slight tweaking of the current formula to put a bit more emphasis on food and a bit less on designer bottles, and to make the pubs more welcoming to families, could work wonders. Come on, Tim Martin, what about that challenge? And what about all those huge underused roadhouses on every major route out of Birmingham - all of which have frequent bus services?