Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November/December 2018

* A Mixed Blessing *

All-day pub opening is undoubtedly a good thing, but it has had its negative side

THIS YEAR saw the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of all-day opening for pubs, which came in on 22 August 1988. From the perspective of today, it is hard to believe that pubs were required to close for two or three hours every afternoon. Originally introduced by Lloyd George as an emergency measure during the First World War, it lingered on for over seventy years.

There were predictions of mayhem in the streets after people had been drinking for hours, but needless to say nothing of the kind occurred. However, itís important to remember that pubs didnít immediately fling their doors open. For quite a few years, most stuck to the old pattern of opening. I remember it being well-nigh impossible to find anywhere open in central Manchester on a Saturday afternoon after 3 pm. It was only the pressure from Wetherspoonís and other pub chains that forced the generality of pubs to follow suit. It also initially didnít apply to Sundays, which were only brought in to line in 1995.

However, itís now become well-nigh universal for pubs in urban centres, and for food-led pubs in general. Overall, itís hard to dispute that itís greatly benefited pubgoers, allowing pubs to tailor their hours to what their customers actually want. It makes trips out to sample the pubs in a different area much easier, and has also led to a noticeable trend of pubs having a busy session around four in the afternoon when many tradespeople knock off.

While many pubs with footfall throughout the day benefited from the extended opening times, others found that they were spreading the same amount of customers over a greater number of hours, and thus increased costs. Therefore they had to look critically at when it actually would be financially worthwhile to be open, something that has become even more of a priority in the current century when there has been a steady decline in the overall business of pubs.

We now have a growing number of pubs that donít open at all on one or more days of the week, while outside town centres, wet-led pubs are more often than not deciding not to open at all at lunchtimes, either on weekdays or even seven days a week. Iíd guess that, if you took a set of pubs in a typical area that have been trading throughout the 1988-2018 period, the total amount of opening hours would actually be markedly less now than it was thirty years ago. Allied to this, there is much greater uncertainly as to when pubs will actually be open, which is made worse by the fact that so few pubs display their hours outside.

The old system also created a routine of drinking times, where the approach of either closing or opening concentrated the mind, whether it was the prospect of the shutters going down in the early afternoon, the early doors opening for that after-work pint, or the narrow two-hour window of Sunday lunchtime. If the pubs are open anyway, the incentive to have a drink at a specific time rather fades away, and sometimes leads to not bothering at all.

All-day opening, or the possibility of it, has now been with us for thirty years and has become accepted as a fact of life. Overall, itís been greatly beneficial to pub users, and Iíve certainly taken advantage of it on a huge number of occasions. Most of the negative trends that have affected the pub trade would have happened anyway regardless of what had been done with hours. Itís certainly dramatically changed the landscape of how pubs actually function throughout the day, but it has to be accepted that change, even when generally beneficial, is rarely an entirely unmixed blessing.

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