Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 2014
Some areas, and some types of pub, have suffered much more in recent years than others
OVER THE PAST fifteen years or so, there has been a dramatic retrenchment of the British pub trade that has led to the closure of huge numbers of once viable pubs. However, in some types of area pubs continue to thrive, so it’s not just a random or uniform trend. Is it possible to discern any pattern in the wave of closures?
The most obvious is that pubs in working-class areas have suffered worst. In a sense, this is inevitable, as historically most pubs have mainly catered for working-class drinkers but, even so, it seems to be disproportionate. Such areas have been most vulnerable to depopulation and redevelopment, the decline of traditional industries, changes in ethnic mix and the growing gulf between pub and off-trade prices. Smoking prevalence is also higher amongst working-class people, meaning that their pubs have suffered more than the average from the smoking ban.
Second is that big pubs, whether estate pub or roadhouse, are more vulnerable than little ones. They are more attractive for residential redevelopment or conversion to convenience stores, they cost more to run, they need more customers to make them viable and many of them were probably never all that appealing in the first place. For example, in Withington in South Manchester, the massive White Lion and Manor House (ex-Golden Lion) have shut down, but smaller pubs like the Albert, Turnpike and Victoria are still going strong.
Third, and maybe counter-intuitively, isolated pubs in residential areas have suffered worse than those grouped with others. Nearby chimneypots are no guarantee of survival, whereas pubs often seem to prosper by being part of a “circuit”. This applies to some in areas of Victorian housing as well as those on 20th century estates. Returning to Withington, the Cotton Tree, which was in an area of housing about half a mile from the village centre, with no other nearby pubs, has closed down, but there are still five pubs in fairly close proximity in the centre.
The class factor works the other way too, as there seem to be some areas that are quite simply too upmarket to sustain pubs. For example, we have seen the closure of the Bleeding Wolf in Hale, Corbans (the former Unicorn) in Halebarns and the Royal Oak in Alderley Edge, all locations with no shortage of either spending money or potential customers living nearby. The local residents may well socialise in restaurants or each other’s houses, but they no longer do it in pubs.
Market towns in general do not seem to have suffered too badly, likewise the smaller and more isolated coastal resorts. Possibly the existence of a captive market is a factor here, if the nearest big town is too far away to be easily reached for a night out, while they may also function as a hub for surrounding villages. Even here, though, the demise of traditional coaching inns is very noticeable, and peripheral pubs have suffered more than those in town centres.
The growing unwillingness to drink and drive even within the legal limit has undoubtedly led to a general thinning-out of pubs in villages and rural areas, which ironically often means that law-abiding pubgoers end up driving further than they used to. Some pubs have been able to go for the upmarket “country dining” trade, but that is a lot more fickle than local regulars and really only as dependable as the last meal served, and it isn’t an option for all. Some country pubs seem to get into a downward spiral of frequent changes of licensee and format, eventually resulting in closure, whereas those with more continuity and a clear sense of purpose stand a better chance of remaining in business.