Drink-Driving and Rural Pubs

In an article about the decline of rural pubs printed in the 2001 Good Beer Guide, What's Brewing editor Ted Bruning commented:

Incidentally, I also question the orthodoxy that drink-drive laws have crucified country pubs. The breathalyser came in 33 years ago; surely its impact has been absorbed by now? And how much did the country pub of 1968 depend on car-borne trade anyway? There were far fewer cars on the road than now, and having been left outside innumerable country pubs with orangeade and crisps as a child in the 1960s, my impression is that pub car-parks are fuller now than they were then.

Full text of letter from Peter Edwardson in response to this printed in What's Brewing, November 2000

I was very interested to read your piece on the decline of rural pubs in the 2001 Good Beer Guide. You are quite right to highlight "increased expectations" as the key reason for this decline - the typical failing rural pub of today probably does considerably more business than the average ticking-over-nicely alehouse of 1900.

However, I feel you are wrong to downplay the role of drink-driving laws - not so much the breathalyser itself, but the degree of enforcement and public attitudes to the law. I would stress that I am writing this from a point of view entirely supportive of the current legal limit, although not necessarily of all the methods currently used to enforce it.

I'm 41 now, so I don't remember all of this at first-hand, but I know from talking to people that in the mid-1960s it wasn't at all uncommon to go out in the car and drink four or five pints two or three times a week.

In the first few years after the breathalyser law, it was not enforced at all strictly, and once people realised that, many continued to do what they had done before. However, it was generally drummed into new entrants to the driving population that they should stick to two pints if they didn't want to risk falling foul of the law. Also, in the late 1970s, as drink-related road casualties remained stubbornly high, the level of police enforcement was stepped up and many of the remaining loopholes in the law closed.

Since the mid-1980s the focus in publicity campaigns has switched from "Stay Low" to "Have None for the Road" and many people, particularly the young, will now refuse to drink any alcohol at all before driving. The police have also started carrying out many more speculative breath tests and routinely testing everyone involved in an accident.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence that the police have carried out targeted campaigns against country pubs which have resulted in some cases in closure (I have heard this in particular with reference to rural Staffordshire). Even if you weren't breaking the law, being tested, or knowing that a mate had been convicted, might make you think twice about going to that pub.

To a large extent all this is desirable in terms of road safety, and drink-related casualties are less than a third of what they were 20 years ago. However, it holds out the prospect of a continuing decline in the total amount of available trade for country pubs, which will mean the weaker ones will keep going to the wall. Many people (myself included) see little point in visiting a pub, except for a meal, unless they can have an alcoholic drink. If they can't, then in general they won't bother, and either drink at home, or (more rarely) go to another pub that they can walk to. Being realistic, outside big towns, scarcely anyone goes to the pub on the bus or train, and nothing's going to do much to change that.

While car ownership has greatly increased since 1967, most of this is in second cars and amongst unskilled workers. I grew up in an ordinary Northern town and in the 1960s most families in administrative and skilled manual occupations had one car, albeit probably nothing grander than a Ford Anglia or Morris Minor. Going for a drive in the country, often including stopping off at a pub, was a favourite pastime.

When I was in my late teens and early 20s it was fairly common for a group of mates to go out and visit a few country pubs in the evening with a (tolerably) abstemious driver. Young people today don't do that - they tend to head instead for the town-centre drinking circuits which didn't exist back then. There has been a rise in pubs in urban areas offering interesting beers, whereas many formerly characterful country pubs have been turned into bland, knocked-through dining establishments. Particularly in a prosperous county like Cheshire it's now rare to come across a "real" country pub.

Realistically, the tide is very much running against rural pubs, and rate relief and similar measures, while desirable, will only slow it down a bit. We will have to accept that in future there will be considerably fewer of them and, unless they have a significant walk-in trade, they will have to regard food as their core business. But hopefully they will also recognise that they have to offer something that is not bland and identikit and also something interesting on the drinks side to appeal to non-drivers.

Pubs like the well-known Bhurtpore Inn at Aston in South Cheshire are a good pointer of the way they should be going.

Note: This was not originally intended as a "letter to the editor", but was merely a private communication from me to Ted prompted by his article.

Ted decided to print it and did an excellent job of editing it to strip out the personal bits and make it more to the point - but there again, that's his job!

It's also deliberately couched in "politically correct" terms. As you will no doubt be aware from other parts of this website, I defend the right of people to drink and drive within the law, although I do not seek to encourage people to do so who otherwise would not.

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