The Death of the English Pub

Alcohol consumption is at a post-war record, so why is the traditional pub in crisis? And is it ultimately doomed?

Thirty years ago, Christopher Hutt, who was later to become Chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale, wrote a book entitled "The Death of the English Pub" which was a savage polemic against the big brewers' greed and insensitivity towards their customers. Today, the stranglehold of the big brewers has been broken, but the pub seems to be under greater threat than ever before.

Town centre pubs are being converted for retail use, suburban roadhouses are being turned into drive-thru fast food outlets, inner-city pubs are being decimated as surrounding housing is redeveloped, country pubs are reported to be closing at a rate of six a week, and many of those that remain have become restaurants in all but name. Even where pubs are still open, they're often visibly struggling, a bit frayed around the edges, and very quiet for most of the week. For all its problems, the pub trade back in 1973 was thriving in comparison with today. What has happened to reduce the English pub to this state?

"Hang on", you may say, "from where I'm standing pubs appear to be thriving a bit too much. My local high street is lined with new, glitzy bars, and at half-past eleven on a Friday night is full of puking, brawling youngsters." Undoubtedly true, but that's a phenomenon largely confined to the centres of cities and large towns, and to drinkers under thirty. Outside those areas, and amongst other age groups, pubs are having a hard time.

It's hard to define exactly what a pub is, but it has to be something more than simply a restaurant for eating or a bar for drinking. A pub, surely, has to have a social aspect and some sense of community. It can cater mostly for passing trade, but a pub must have at least a few regular customers, even if they only visit once a week. It can be predominantly a drinking shop, or an eating house, but it has to go beyond that. It also should have an independent existence that can survive changes of ownership and even, to some extent, format.

Since the era when Christopher Hutt wrote his book, a range of social changes have occurred that have reduced both the volume of business enjoyed by pubs and their attractiveness to large sections of the population.

One very definite change, that has come about mainly in the past fifteen years, is that the moderate consumption of alcohol has become markedly less socially acceptable. This has some justification insofar as it relates to driving, but it extends well beyond that to a view that the combination of alcohol with any form of responsible activity is something to be disapproved of. The most obvious manifestation of it is that employers increasingly frown on their workers drinking at lunchtime, and a swift sandwich at the desk has become far more common than a pie and a pint down the pub. But, in every aspect of their everyday lives, people are much less likely to break off for an hour or so for "a swift half".

The corollary of this is that, when people do get the opportunity to drink, they want to take maximum advantage, leading to the epidemic of "binge drinking" on Friday and Saturday nights that has been so widely reported. This tends to be done in town-centre circuits rather than in neighbourhood locals or country pubs. Some of these establishments, particularly the very obviously targeted "fun pubs" in town centres, have no role at lunchtimes or early weekday nights, and only come into their own for serious sessions at weekends.

Ironically, in a sense gross drunkenness once or twice a week has now become more socially acceptable than regular moderate drinking. This may benefit city-centre bottle bars, but it does nothing for day-to-day trade in traditional pubs.

Perhaps the single biggest factor in the decline of pubs is changing social attitudes to drink-driving. This is not just another attempt to suggest that if only the police would stop harassing pubgoers all the problems of pubs would go away: it is part of a wider social trend that, realistically, is not going to be reversed. Since the introduction of the breathalyser in 1967, far more people own cars, far more people have lifestyles and live in locations where they are largely dependent on car-based travel, and many fewer people are willing to drive after consuming alcohol, both above and within the legal limit. Overall, this results in a considerable reduction in the number of occasions when people will consider a visit to a pub.

For a period of around fifty years, from the early 30s to the mid 80s, there was an assumption that people would want to drive out to pubs in substantial numbers. This resulted in a pattern of pub development that is no longer appropriate for the trade that is on offer.

Many big suburban roadhouses have been sold off for housing or conversion to drive-thru restaurants, and plenty of rural pubs that were greatly extended in the 70s and 80s are rarely if ever even half full now. A whole particular type of pub - the all-purpose urban fringe or rural pub - is now outdated, and while a large but steadily dwindling number survive, no new examples are being opened, always a good indicator that the days of a particular type of outlet are numbered.

Twenty years ago, if you visited a typical country pub a few miles from a large town in the evening, you would find it full of couples of all ages who had driven out there for a drink. Today, there will be fewer people in general, and they will be more polarised between diners and locals. The remaining couples will almost entirely be over forty-five. Many of the smaller out-of-town pubs, which once attracted much outside trade, are now reduced to catering for a small knot of locals. They've stopped serving food and increasingly are not opening at lunchtimes except at weekends. A lot of once thriving country pubs have now closed.

The all-or-nothing attitude towards drinking already mentioned means that young people are not interested in driving to a pub and confining themselves to a couple of pints - they will either not go to a pub at all, or head off to the town centre drinking circuit for a skinful. It's all very well saying "why can't they use designated driver schemes?" but that requires a degree of organisation and forward planning that militates against casual, spontaneous pubgoing and indeed tends to encourage the attitude of wanting to take maximum advantage when not driving.

In the past thirty years there has been an enormous rise in the number of pubs serving food, and in the quality and variety of the food on offer. This has undoubtedly ensured that many pubs remain viable, and encouraged large numbers of people to visit pubs who otherwise might never have done so. But there comes a point where food can predominate to such an extent that all other aspects of the pub are squeezed out. This has in effect happened with some of the chains of dining pubs such as S&N's Chef & Brewer and Bass's Vintage Inns, where there is effectively no provision for non-diners and the layout and style of service strongly implies they are not welcome. These may be successful establishments (although how long that particular formula will continue to work is open to question) but they are no longer pubs, they are restaurants in the guise of pubs. Over time, they may increasingly cease to resemble pubs. In many cases turning a pub into one of these quasi-restaurants has killed off or driven out what "pub" trade was there before, so the trend is actually causing the extinction of pubs rather than merely reflecting it.

The way prices have moved has not helped pubs, either. With rising living standards, the prices of services where there is a substantial labour element rise more quickly than the prices of physical goods. The price of a pint in a pub has to cover the cost of serving it and washing the glasses, heating, lighting and cleaning, which the price of a can in the supermarket doesn't. In the 1960s, draught in the pub was the cheapest beer you could get, but today it's normally at least 50% more expensive than beer in the off-trade, even before you take into account "3 for 2" offers. While this doesn't stop people going to the pub, when beer can be bought from the supermarket for half the pub price, it may well make them think twice about how often they go. This particularly affects urban locals which are likely to have many regular customers on a tight budget.

Compared with thirty years ago, there are many other distractions to encourage people to stay at home rather than going to the pub - video recorders, DVDs, personal computers, satellite television. There's also a much wider selection of alcoholic drinks to enjoy at home. The corollary of this is that there is an expectation that pubs should provide a much wider range of drinks and facilities and a higher standard of comfort. The old-fashioned basic local with two pumps on the bar no longer holds much appeal for most pubgoers, even if it makes CAMRA members feel nostalgic. This means that pubs, in effect, have to run faster just to stand still. And one of the main gambits they have adopted to do this is showing live football on large-screen TV, which may create an impression of success but overall probably deters as many customers - particularly women and older people - as it attracts.

Obviously all is not doom and gloom, and there are plenty of places where "proper" pubs continue to thrive. But I would be surprised if more than a small proportion of the pubs that were in existence in 1980 are doing more wet trade today. Some of the new town-centre bars such as Wetherspoons do fulfil many of the kind of pub functions I mentioned above, but it must be remembered that town-centre circuits are the only locations where pubs and bars are doing better than they used to. Everywhere else, the pub trade is in steady decline, and the occasional successful pub is only bucking the trend. Even in town centres, each Wetherspoons will probably have leached some trade away from several old-fashioned locals around the fringes, and some of those will now have closed.

My home area of Stockport is actually one where the presence of fairly densely populated, socially mixed neighbourhoods allows a variety of pubs to survive and prosper. Stockport is also helped by the fact that a large proportion of its pubs are owned by independent family breweries - Robinsons, Hydes and Holts - who are committed to maintaining them as pubs attracting a variety of customers. But visiting other areas of the country it is clear that the pub trade is generally in a much less healthy state than Stockport. And even in Stockport a number of the smaller pubs on the fringes of the town centre have closed in recent years.

Establishments that are recognisable as pubs will undoubtedly continue to survive in significant numbers. But the pub, as a ubiquitous institution that provides a constant thread through society across ages and classes, is doomed. In many areas it has already largely disappeared.

Even today, the broad appeal of pubs, as exemplified in soap operas by the Rover's Return and the Queen Vic, is a thing of the past, and kind of "let's go dahn the pub" bonhomie often suggested by TV programmes does not reflect real life. London indeed is one of the worst areas in the country for the loss of traditional pubs to residential and retail development, and non-pub formats.

The future of the pub will be to have a more limited, specialist appeal which is perhaps typified by the "Northern Quarter" of Manchester. The key factors for success for "real" pubs in the future will be to be in a position where there is sufficient walk-in trade to keep them ticking over, and being able to draw on a reasonably prosperous but socially mixed clientele base.

Pubs that trade on the basis that they will attract a high proportion of customers from outside their local area will only be able to prosper in town and city centres, where they will tend to cluster in circuits. Away from those areas, outside trade will inevitably be overwhelmingly food led. Other pubs will need to depend to a greater extent than previously on trade from their local area, which makes it more critical exactly what kind of area they are in.

(February 2003)

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