| Pub closures, Pubcos, Pubs

Is The Moon Under Water Finally Getting its Head Above the Surface?

The Office of National Statistics says the number of pubs in Britain has grown for the first time since 2007. Surely that’s got to be good news?

Talk about shooting the messenger, then chopping the messenger up into tiny bits, then burning those bits, and pissing on the messenger’s ashes.

Last year the Office of National Statistics (ONS) launched their ‘Economies of Ale’ report into the changing numbers of British pubs. It painted a gloomy picture that we were used to, but I spotted an interesting quirk in the data. It showed that small, independently owned pubs were closing faster than larger pubs owned by the big pub companies. So I wrote a column pointing out that, if this was the case, the big pubco tie can’t be the main reason for pub closures – not if pubs that have nothing to do with the pubcos are closing faster than pubco-owned pubs. That’s simple logic. It’s not to say the pubco tie isn’t a factor in closures, but it can’t possible be the main factor.

Not for the first time, the piece was given a misleading headline by the sub-editors, which didn’t accurately reflect the tone of the piece. And as few people these days bother to read beyond the headline, if you follow the debate around pub closures at all, you can guess what happened next.

According to my social media feeds, my story was proof that the ONS, the whole British Guild of Beer Writers, the entire UK national media and most of all, me personally, were involved in a vast conspiracy and were being paid off by the likes of Ei Group (formerly Enterprise Inns) and Punch Taverns. I had been paid thousands of pounds by the pubcos to write this piece. I was apparently performing sexual favours on the chief executives of these companies, and I was actively supporting their actions in the pub market because I hated pub tenants and lessees and the businesses they ran. I absolutely loved big corporate CEOs because, in ways that were never made quite clear, their actions benefited me professionally.

The people who wrote these comments remain hurt and bewildered that most beer writers refuse to engage with them.

Anyway, twelve months on, and the latest Economies of Ale report paints a more optimistic picture. The total number of pubs in the UK has grown for the first time since 2007. Not only that, but while the trend towards bigger, urban pubs remains, even small pubs – those hardest hit by the lethal cocktail of factors driving pub closures – have shown fractional growth.

The total number of pubs increased by 315 from 2018 to 2019. This represents an increase of 0.8%. The number of small pubs (employing fewer than ten employees) increased by 85 – a 0.4% increase.

Now, a friend of mine has pointed out that when you dig right down into the data, rounding numbers in individual regions may mean this very modest increase is even smaller than it looks. It’s also worth noting that the modest increases in 2003 and 2007 – the only other years this century with a net increase – did little to alter the overall downward trend that’s seen more than a quarter of British pubs disappear in the last twenty years.

But rather than quibble about the size of the rise, what’s more important is that the number of pubs hasn’t gone down.

Every time new pub closure figures are announced, news outlets just love to run stories about ‘the death of the pub’. To be fair to them, people do care more about pub closures than they do about say, cask ale, and these stories always bring the phone lines and comments pages to life. But I always get the impression that there’s bit of glee in sharing the doom and gloom.

I’m often invited onto radio shows to discuss the issue, and my line is always clear: the pub has been around for a thousand years, and it isn’t about to disappear in the next twenty or thirty. But pubs reflect the society they are part of – always have – and as that society evolves, so must the pub. We now have so many more leisure alternatives than we used to have and less leisure time to spend on them, so the pub can’t possibly retain the utterly dominant position it once had in British culture. That doesn’t mean it’s dead – as a society, we still love our pubs – but we need fewer of them than we once did, because we go less often. What we’re witnessing now is not a terminal decline, but a correction.

It’s just my opinion. But ONS numbers would seem to bear it out. If we change the scale of the graph above, we can see the movement more clearly.

That massive, horrible drop between 2007 and 2013 was the result of a clusterfuck of negative factors: the smoking ban started in 2007, the global financial crash happened in 2008, and in response the then government thought it would be a good idea to punish an already reeling industry with the beer duty escalator, which helped the total tax burden payable on beer rise by 40% in four years.

Them, from 2014 onwards, the decline slowed dramatically. I wouldn’t be surprised if numbers did fall again in the next two or three years, but unless something else catastrophic happens (can you think of any looming economic disaster this year? Nah, me neither…) then I reckon pub numbers will, overall, stay pretty constant around this level from now on.

That’s not to say pubs don’t need fighting for, or that can all just relax now. The world has changed and pubs will continue to face stiff competition from coffee shops, casual dining, Netflix, X-box and a whole host of things that weren’t really around twenty or thirty years ago. But we appear to be over the worst. This data was launched last Thursday, and no one has yet asked me onto a radio show to discuss the death of the British pub.

There’s a lot more interesting stuff when you dig down into the data. Later this week, I’ll blog again on some of the interesting quirks and wrinkles on what it tells us about how the pub is evolving, and how the picture changes across the country.

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