1 November 2023

How to save British pubs


Let me start by saying that I adore pubs. I haven’t been a drinker for years now but I still love licenced premises, and I’m not nearly as demanding as Orwell: his idealised Moon Under Water sounds divine, but I regard myself as adaptable. When I was a student, there were (I reckoned) 43 pubs or bars in St Andrews, and I’d had a drink in all of them.

Public houses are not a uniquely British invention, but the British pub – and I regard the Irish pub as a close but distinct cousin – is a very distinctive and profound part of our national life. Pepys called the pub ‘the heart of England’, and there is, even in this atomised, fractured society, a notion of the local boozer as a hub of community. This makes every item of bad news for the pub industry a grievous injury indeed.

This year has not been good for pubs. In the first half of 2023, 332 public houses called their final last orders – and the previous year saw 512 close, so the pace is gathering. Relief on business rates is due to end in March 2024, and this will be a huge blow for the licenced trade. Pubs are currently entitled to a 75% reduction in their business rate bill, up to a maximum of £110,000 per year, and many operate on margins much tighter than that. Things only look worse when you add spiralling energy costs into the mix – the British Beer and Pub Association has estimated that the average pub’s bill will rise by £18,400 a year.

It’s easy to feel an air of crisis, as pubs and bars fight desperately to put the Covid lockdowns behind them. And these are headline figures which must haunt publicans, licensees and landlords, big enough in themselves to tip the balance between survival and closure. To understand the whole picture, however, we have to zoom out and consider a more complicated panorama.

Between March 2006 and July 2007, smoking indoors in public places – including pubs – was prohibited across the United Kingdom. There has been a sustained argument that this was a devastating blow to the pub industry – it is undoubtedly true that in 2006 there were 58,200 pubs in the United Kingdom, and that number has fallen. In 2020, before the pandemic, it had dropped to 46,800. Now it stands somewhere between 38,000 and 45,000 (exact figures are surprisingly hard to establish). Anti-prohibition groups like Forest have sometimes found more dramatic figures, and have drawn a direct correlation between the smoking ban and pub closures. But was the industry right?

Not necessarily. The number of pubs had been declining, though less steeply, for years – in 1990, there were 63,500, which fell by 13% in the following 15 years. The longer term picture is that people now buy much more of their alcohol (at much lower prices) from supermarkets than they do in pubs and bars, and drink at home. On-trade consumption had been falling since 2002, well before the introduction of the smoking ban, and beer, the nonpareil of pub culture, saw its sales fall more sharply than other drinks.

Our drinking habits have undergone a quiet revolution. One survey revealed that while 80% of adults had consumed an alcoholic drink in their home within the previous week, only 36% had done so in a pub, bar or restaurant. And we cannot overlook the decline of beer as a drink of choice. In 1970, a full 71% of alcohol consumed in the UK was beer. By 2000, beer represented only 49%.

All of this poses a question. We are lamenting the closure of pubs, but are these offering us what we, as consumers, want? I can only speak with confidence for the male side of the population, but the easiest way to navigate a visit to the pub of whatever length is by drinking pints. As measures go, it is reasonably affordable, it lasts a decent half-hour to 45 minutes (recollections may vary) and it is of a strength that will not incapacitate but will provide a noticeable effect. It may seem absurd, but, if you are drinking something other than a pint, you may be complicating a finely balanced ritual. 

I’m being slightly facetious – of course pubs have changed. The gender balance is more even than it was, some figures suggesting rough parity between men and women, though significant numbers of women still say they find pubs off-puttingly ‘male’. Most pubs also now serve at least edible hot food, a far cry from the pork scratching or the ominous jar of pickled eggs.

But there is obviously still something missing. Pubs may close for many reasons, but one common thread is that we, the public, are not going to them as much as we did. We have to entertain the notion that the reason for this may be that pubs aren’t what we want them to be.

Is it heretical to suggest that the licensed trade needs to be more creative? As an honourably discharged drinker, I could suggest that wine needs to be better and less ruinously expensive, and bar staff are the biggest thing you change for the better or worse without knocking down walls.

Seek diversity, above all – there is no point in having ten pubs which are largely the same. Don’t try to make eight out of ten people content. Make four of them beam with delight. Pubs won’t all do it in the same way, and therein lies the joy. Make pubs somewhere people want to be, not just to go to – second homes, not just acceptable alcohol outlets. Otherwise we’ll be here again in ten years’ time, lamenting the loss of more run-of-the-mill pubs which we never went to, knowing it could have been different.

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Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.