The state and future of the pub


2012 is a year packed with British celebration. For many people, taking part in this will involve a visit to the pub, in what has always been seen as a classically British way to socialise, and yet the pub industry is in decline with the current rate of closure at 16 pubs a week.

Rick Muir a researcher with IPPR has released the report, Pubs and Places: The Social Value of Community Pubs.  He investigates the cause of this decline and asks whether the pub still holds sway as a British icon and valuable asset in communities.

Claire Cain met with Rick to discuss his report over a pint in the Ship and Shovel pub near the Embankment in London.

Claire Cain: Is this your local pub then?

 Rick Muir: Yes, this is the pub we come to after work on most Friday evenings. It does a very good line of Real Ale so it’s very popular, you can normally get a seat so we love it here.

CC:  Certainly this pub seems to be thriving there’s a lot of people here. But looking at the broader picture what is the current landscape for the British pub, at the moment?

RM:  The number of pubs has actually been declining for decades in Britain but the rate of pub closures has accelerated in the last decade or so and at its peak about 52 pubs a week were closing. That’s declined a little bit now, it’s about 16 pubs a week closing – but we are still losing pubs.

The stock of pubs is falling over all and we’ve got to be very careful we don’t end up with a situation where we turn around in ten years time and think ‘what happened to the British pub, it disappeared?’

There are lots of reasons why this is happening. The economic situation is obviously not good, people don’t have much money to spend and it’s much cheaper to buy alcohol from the supermarket. People are drinking less beer, drinking more wine and wine is less associated with pubs than beer and so people go and drink wine in restaurants rather than pubs. There are questions about the business model that some of the big pub companies are running. Lots of different things that have all happened at the same time means there’s been a sort of perfect storm for the pub trade which has led to an historically high rate of pub closures. So the trade is in a very difficult situation at the moment.

CC: Your report included a quote from the writer [Hilaire] Belloc from 1948 which said: “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves for you will have lost the last of England”  Do you still think people feel this way about the pub?

RM:  I think the pub is still a community institution which is essential to the British way of life. There’s no question about that.  It’s still a hugely important part of our culture. In the polling we did for the report we found the pub was, outside of peoples own homes, the most important place where people get together and meet other people in their communities – more important than restaurants, more important than schools, more important than community centres and more important than parks. So the pub plays an important role as a community hub as a place where people can meet and interact.

Interestingly we also found that it was one of the places where people were most likely to mix with people from different backgrounds to their own. So it clearly plays a role in community cohesion and encouraging interaction between people from different professional backgrounds, from different social backgrounds of all kinds.

So yes the pub is very important, people value it and people are concerned about what is happening to it. And that is one of the reasons why I think politicians and policy makers need to be worried about what is happening.

CC: David Cameron has announced the possible introduction of minimum pricing on alcohol to curb excess drinking which he described as one of the scandals of our society. He said that the drinks industry, supermarkets, clubs and pubs need to work with government so that responsible drinking becomes reality and not just a slogan. Do you think politicians get a raw deal from politicians and the media? Does your report offer an alternative to this view?

RM: Well yes, I think there is a danger that everyone gets tarred with the same brush. Most of the problem drinking establishments are, we know from police recorded crime statistics, in town centres.  These are the kind of circuit bars which people go from one to the next on a Friday and Saturday night. That’s where you get the binge-drinking and that’s where you get most of the crime and anti-social behaviour. The smaller residential community pubs have much less of that but they face the same regulatory and tax regime as those often larger, wealthier establishments that operate in the town centres that cause most of the problems. One of things that our report says is that we shouldn’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach in policy terms to drinking establishments. We should focus on the ones that are causing problems and we should try to find ways of providing financial support for the ones which serve important community functions.  That’s why one of things we’ve talked about is giving business rate relief to community pubs, for example, to try to give them some support while not giving support to pubs that are causing a problem in the community.

CC: In terms of the role that pubs have in promoting responsible drinking and reaching out to the wider community, are pubs acting on this at the moment or do you think more needs to be done?

RM: I think that some pubs do better than others. There are some great examples.  Our report found examples of pubs which provide meeting places for community groups, raise lots of money for charity, employ local people, serve locally sourced produce and therefore help support local economies.

Of course there will be pubs where that’s not the case and they may even cause problems. But that’s a minority of pubs. All the polling we’ve done shows that. Most people’s experience of pubs is not crime or anti-social behaviour, it’s enjoying good quality time with friends and family. I think in rural areas pubs play a particularly important role often because they are the only community meeting place. So I think particularly in villages and so on you find that if there wasn’t a pub there, there wouldn’t be anywhere where people could meet and interact. That’s why I think you’re finding in rural areas some pubs are supporting the local post office they may offer services like internet access and so on. So there are lots of things that in different parts of the country different people are doing and I think we need to find a way of targeting support to those pubs which do a good job because that’s what we want to promote.

CC: Do you think that’s a vital way, and the only way that pubs should move forward in order to save themselves from closure?

RM: I think they should reach out to the community and I think they should build up that part of their function which is being the community hub. They also need to improve their offer.

People say government needs to act, the pubs companies need to act – all of that is true and I’ve advocated reforms which need to happen which the government need to introduce and the large pub companies need to introduce.  But pubs also need to offer things which people want to buy, which is why we’ve seen the rise of the gastro pub, and it’s why pubs offer a wider range of wines than they used to. They have to adapt to the changing tastes of the consumers.

For the report I interviewed a guy who runs an estate pub in Hackney. When the Wetherspoon opened up down the road he lost half of his custom overnight because all of his customers on this very low income estate were very hard pressed and Wetherspoon could offer much cheaper food and beer than he could offer. So he responded to that by turning his pub into a niche pub for jazz enthusiasts from all around the country and he now runs the thing as a jazz club and he’s doing very well. That’s the kind of thing that pubs need to do. They need to find a niche and they need to get good at something and they need to attract people in. If they don’t do that then they will suffer. The pubs which are doing really well are the ones at the moment even in this tough environment that have found a niche whether it’s food, or music, or it’s just being a really good community pub. They have found that niche and just become really good at it, and they are getting more people coming through the door. It’s not just about government it’s not just about big business doing their part. It’s also about pubs themselves offering things which people want to buy.

CC: I was also  interested in your statistics that show who actually goes to pubs, who attends the pub, in regard that other great British subject, class.  Is it true to say that pubs are no longer accessible to the whole of the community regardless of what they have on offer because pubs are unaffordable or excluding certain sections of society?

RM: The traditional image of the pub is that it is a working class institution and you only have to watch East Enders or Coronation Street. The Rovers Return and The Queen Vic are archetypal examples of that. The image of the pub is that it is a working class institution and in many ways it still is but having said that, I think the rise in prices in pubs means that that has squeezed people a bit.

What we found in the statistics was that basically pub attendance falls as you move lower down the income scale – people in the professional social class category of A-B Professionals, they’re the people who attend pubs most frequently now and the social category which attend pubs least are the D-E Category which is the lowest income group. I think that is simply because of the rise in prices  – people have been pushed out to a certain extent and I think that’s why we’re finding more people drinking at home.  That is sad because the pub has always played an important part in a lot of disadvantaged communities and it is sad to see that that has declined to some extent.

CC: Did you find evidence to show that cost is one of the big factors?   If we managed to make costs equal for buying alcohol in the supermarkets and drinking in pubs would people flock back to the pub?  Or do you think we’ve moved beyond with other social factors – for example we’re meant to be more health conscious now or because of the Facebook generation?

RM: I don’t buy the argument that the Facebook generation matters as much. Most studies on the impact of the internet on social capital, social relationships tend to show that most of what happens online is related to encounters in the real world. So actually on Facebook a lot of what people are doing is arranging to meet and go and do things together. So I don’t think the birth of the internet means that we don’t interact as much as we did.

Other things have driven this decline. Robert Putnam’s work Bowling Alone, which looks at the decline of social capital in America found that the fact that people’s homes are more comfortable places than they used to be, the growth of home entertainment, DVDs, multiple television channels and video games all of that means that people don’t get out of their houses as much because their houses are much nicer and entertaining places to be. That has certainly posed a challenge for pubs and that is why there has been a spectacular decline in pubs.

But we have to distinguish between long-term social change, which has meant a long-term decline in pubs going back to the start of the last century, and the accelerated rate of pub closures which has happened over the last five or six years. This recent decline is much more about prices, supermarkets, the smoking ban to some extent (for some pubs in particular). So we have to distinguish between long term social trends which I think are inevitable and maybe there is only so much pubs can do about that – apart from adapting to people’s tastes in the way that they need to do – and the short term more immediate factors around the recession and all of that.

CC: There was a unique chapter in your report which looks at the impact pubs have on their community but it attempts to measure and give a monetary value to what that impact is. Why did you think it was important to do this study and what were your findings?

RM: What we did was we applied a method which is called social return on investment, which is a way of looking at how an organization of any kind impacts not just financially on the economy but also what its impact is on the community. It allows you to quantify the social impact of what a pub does or what any social organization does. We wanted to do it simply because it would illustrate in numerical terms the impact of pubs. What we found was the pubs which we looked at generated anywhere between £20,000 to £120,000 a year in social value, beyond the economic impact that they had. We wanted to show government –  in the most dramatic way possible (which is in quantifiable terms) –  what the impact of pubs. We’re hopeful that pubs themselves will be able to use the methodology we’ve developed to demonstrate to Local Authorities and others what their impact is.

CC: What do you see the future is for the British pub and what do you think needs to be done to stop the closures by Government and by us?

RM:  I think there are a number of things which need to happen. Firstly, we need to have a more differential approach in tax terms between pubs which are doing really good things in the community and those which are the cause of all the binge-drinking which David Cameron has been talking about. If you apply the methodology we’ve developed you can identify which pubs are community pubs and then you can essentially offer them business rate relief.  This would mean a reduction of  thousands of pounds a year – considerable sums of money.  That’s one thing we want to do, to give financial support to community pubs.

Secondly, we want reform of the planning legislation. At the moment if a developer can’t get planning permission to change use from pub use to a residential use, there is a loophole in the law which means the developer can just knock the pub down without any permission at all.  We want that loophole to be removed in planning terms.

Thirdly, we’d like to see the pub companies reform some of the ways they work. The way some of the large pub companies have operated the ‘beer tie‘, for example, has meant that they have been charging too much for the beer that publicans are buying.  That’s put publicans in tied pubs at a comparative disadvantage and we think it’s probably driven prices up across the board.  What we want to do is introduce a Code of Conduct for the pub companies so that they can offer their prospective lessees either a free-of-tie lease or a tied lease which means they can choose whether they want to get all of their beer from the pub company or whether they want to buy on the open market. If the pub company offer them lots of advantages in terms of business support then they can perfectly well opt to go with the pub company but we would like to see them have that choice whether they want to go free-of-tie or not. We think that would hopefully make a difference to pubs.

Finally, we want to encourage pubs to get better at offering people what they want. We know that the best pubs out there are offering things whether it be music, or Real Ale or food and I think if you look at the data, the pubs that tend to be suffering most are the ones that probably haven’t responded enough to the market. I’m not denying there are huge problems out there for them but they do need to respond to what consumers want to buy – so there is an onus on publicans to adapt to peoples tastes.

I think if you tried to do all of those things we would strengthen the place of the pub and hopefully give it a more promising future.

CC:Well on that note I think we should get another pint in and thank you very much for speaking to Pod Academy.

This podcast was presented and produced by Claire Cain.


Useful links:

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale