This post is to a large extent a rehash of others I have made in the past. Some people aren’t going to like it, but it needs to be said.
I can well understand how people who have suffered at the hands of the pub companies feel very aggrieved about it, and are thus motivated to campaign against the companies’ policies. But, as with single-issue campaigners of all kinds, it is all too easy to allow it to expand into an over-arching narrative that explains everything. To listen to some of them, you would get the impression that the primary reason for the decline of the pub trade in the past twenty years has been greedy, incompetent pub companies acting in association with rapacious supermarkets and property developers and bungling local authorities. However, this, whether through simple ignorance or a blinkered refusal to confront the facts, completely fails to recognise the wider picture.
In the period since 1979, beer sales in pubs have declined by over 60%, and around a third of the pubs in the country have closed. There has been a marked long-term secular decline in the demand for pubs which goes far beyond the specifics of individual businesses. Obviously, in an overall declining market, it will tend to be the better-run pubs that survive, and the worse-run ones that go to the wall, but the underlying reason for pubs closing en masse is not that they have been sold off in large number for alternative use despite being profitable, nor that they have been allowed to become tatty, unwelcoming, badly-managed dumps. Indeed, the average pub now is much better run and more welcoming that it was in 1979.
Are those who are mainly laying it at the door of the pubcos really denying there’s been much impact from the decline of heavy industry, inner-city depopulation, influx of people from cultures with no pubgoing tradition, changing gender roles, discouragement of lunchtime drinking at work, denormalisation of drink-driving within the legal limit or the smoking ban?
I asked the question here what difference it would may to the overall pub market if the average pub was run as well as the best. The conclusion was that overall trade would be unlikely to increase by more than a few percentage points. To suggest that pubs could have held on to most of the lost trade by being run differently is frankly ludicrous. It’s on a par with arguing that the collapse of transatlantic passenger shipping in the 1960s was mainly due to badly-run shipping lines. In mature markets, variations in the quality of what is on offer play a relatively minor role in determining the overall level of demand. I regularly visit a number of well-run, appealing family brewery tied houses that have certainly not been allowed to decay and can demonstrate long-term continuity in management and general offer. But they have haemorrhaged trade too, just as surely as the most inconsistently-run pubco outlet, even if not quite to the same degree.
Equally, while I’m sure there have been cases of profitable pubs being sold off for redevelopment as flats or convenience stores, there are few areas of the country where there aren’t plenty of recently-closed pubs in all kinds of locations that would be available on a freehold basis to anyone wanting an entry into the trade. There must be at least half a dozen in central Stockport alone. The fact that would-be pub entrepreneurs haven’t snapped these sites up suggests that they don’t see a potential market there, and those who whine that “pubs only close because they’re shit” always seem strangely reluctant to put their money where their mouth is. While matters may be different in some parts of inner London subject to intense development pressures, I’m not aware of a single pub around here sold for conversion to alternative use that previously could have been said to be thriving.
I do not for a minute seek to defend the policies of the pubcos, but they are essentially a desperate reaction to declining demand, not a cause. The pubcos borrowed up to the hilt to bet the farm on a projected outcome that just didn’t happen, and are now counting the cost. The current “pub crisis” is essentially a crisis of demand, not supply. All the planning controls and development restrictions in the world won’t save a single pub if the underlying demand isn’t there in the first place. While it may be possible to turn round a failing, badly-run pub, for the most part that will simply be at the expense of others appealing to the same population of potential customers. It does little or nothing to affect the overall size of the market. For plenty of closed pubs, it is possible to come up with a narrative that might have allowed it to do better. For the overall market, it is much more difficult, unless you’re suggesting rewinding thirty years of social and economic change.
If you fail to understand the true nature of the problem, whether through ignorance or choice, you are never going to come up with a solution. Indeed it does the pub trade as a whole a disservice for people to insist on peddling a narrative for its decline which at best is exaggerated and at worst utterly delusional. Quite frankly, some of the more strident anti-pubco campaigners end up being simply anti-pub.
Some have accused me of not really supporting pubs, but any lasting acquaintance with this blog will disabuse you of that notion. But I acknowledge that social changes have made huge swathes of pubs unviable, regrettable as it may be in many cases, and don’t go about flogging dead horses. You can still be a railway enthusiast while admitting there isn’t really a case for reopening the Cleobury Mortimer branch. I recognise that every pub is a business too, which some seem not to, and they cannot be kept alive by fossilising the trading patterns of the past through the planning system. Nor is it desirable to try to help business sectors you feel sentimental about by artificially skewing the market in their favour – all that will do is postpone the evil day and very likely in the end result in a worse outcome.