Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 1999
* Pubs in Crisis? *
You may wonder why I go on from time to time about the depressed state of the pub trade, when scarcely a month goes by without reading of new Wetherspoons and Hogsheads springing up all over the place. In reality, though, the apparent boom in new pubs is very much limited to the centres of big towns and cities, and is largely targeted at drinkers under thirty.
Outside these areas, it's rare to find a pub which is really booming. The majority are keeping their heads above water, although probably not doing quite the business they used to. However, industry analysts reckon that a good third of pubs nationwide are engaged in a real struggle for survival, and their business position is very marginal. Travelling around the country, closed and boarded pubs, or buildings which obviously used to be pubs, are a common sight. A new recession could lead to a tidal wave of closures in a very short space of time.
This is by no means exclusively a feature of rural areas and inner cities - there are many examples of suburban pubs in entirely viable locations, particularly in the South-East, where the owners have found it more lucrative to sell off the site for redevelopment as executive housing, an office block or a drive-thru McDonalds. There's an example of this near to home in Weaverham, a prosperous commuter town near Northwich, where a big 1950s pub ("The Salter", if you're interested) on the main through road was demolished last year to make way for a small up-market housing estate.
It's dismaying how often I go in perfectly decent pubs, at times when you might expect them to be at least ticking over nicely, and find them embarrassingly empty. This can become something of a vicious circle, as, if you turn up at a pub and your group are the only customers, you might well feel awkward and end up not going back. The fact is, quite simply, that people just don't go in pubs like they used to, and the pub is losing its broad social base. There are various reasons for this, most of which have been discussed over the years in this column, but the truth of it is clear. Going to the pub on a regular basis is becoming less and less part of most people's lives, and the scenes depicted on TV in the Rover's Return bear little relation to reality.
However hard you work at running your pub, it will not guarantee success, but it is clear today as never before that no licensee can simply sit back and expect customers to come through the door. If people are visiting pubs less often, they are going to be more choosy. But it is also obvious that there are plenty of pubs up and down the country, often in the most unpromising locations, in the deep countryside or rundown inner cities, which are very successful. If a pub is run with sufficient enterprise and commitment it can not only take trade from other pubs but also increase the total size of the market. Yes, there are wider social factors working against the pub, but licensees and pub operators must not be fatalistic in the face of this - there is a lot more they can do about it than many of them might imagine.