The editors of the Good Pub Guide 2014 forecast that between 2,500 and 4,000 old-fashioned pubs in the UK will be forced to shut in the near future. Controversially, they also claim that it is ‘high time they closed their doors’ to make way for more energetic and dynamic new licensees, such as gastro pubs.
Maybe the editors at the Good Pub Guide have come to this conclusion after a lengthy liquid lunch? Maybe they see anti-pub chain JD Wetherspoon as the energetic and dynamic replacement for dilapidated Dog and Duck-style locals in provincial towns. Much of the available evidence, however, suggests an alarming haemorrhaging rather than a sparkling re-invention of pubs. And if pubs are really becoming a more attractive place to be, how come fewer and fewer young people now drink in them?
If we examine statistics published by the brewery industry, in 2002 there were approximately 60,000 pubs open across the UK. Ten years later, the number had dropped to about 50,000. For all the handwringing over ‘boozy Britain’ and the rather unworldly jitters about ‘binge drinking’ (that is, having four pints in one evening), booze consumption in pubs has also declined. In fact, just about the only thing that has increased pub-wise is tax on alcohol. For example, from 2000 to 2008, the duty on a bottle of wine rose by 15 per cent; from 2008, after Labour chancellor of the exchequer Alastair Darling introduced the ‘alcohol duty escalator’, the duty on a bottle of wine increased by 46 per cent, with similar rises for beer and spirits, too. Add to that the restrictions placed on smokers, forced to step outside to enjoy a cigarette, and it’s little wonder that many people are opting for the cheaper option of supermarket booze and a night in.
Many mainstream commentators have expressed concern about the pub’s steady demise. They rightly point out how pubs have played an important part in local communities, particularly for elderly and retired citizens, acting as places where adults can talk and socialise like adults. George Orwell’s 1946 article, ‘The Moon Under Water’, is often cited as a perfect evocation of what a classic British pub should look and feel like, to be contrasted with the new breed of anti-pubs characteristic of our brave new Wetherspoon’s world. ‘Pubs have always been meeting places and to take them away is like ripping the heart out of a community’, said John Bell of, of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), when examining the rate of pub closures in the North. ‘People have less money to spend on things like a pint, but there are other things like the cost of beer duty, the smoking ban and the fact that a lot of pubs used to be based in the heart of industrial areas that aren’t there anymore. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.’
Chris Hackley, a marketing professor at the University of London, argues that the brewery industry itself must take some of the blame. ‘In the 1980s there was a big shift on the part of breweries, from pubs to off-licence sales’, he says. ‘Whereas alcohol sales had a special place in the pub, we saw a shift to its normalisation through supermarkets. The obsession with youth marketing, such as with alcopops, has had a bit of an infantilising effect on young people’s relationship with alcohol. The pub as a rite-of-passage into drinking alcohol had effectively gone.’ Hackley has raised an important and often overlooked point here: that young people are not being socialised into how to handle alcohol in a public environment. ‘Drinking in pubs is an informal level of controlled alcohol consumption’, says Hackley. ‘Young people would learn the rituals of drinking, such as patiently waiting to be served, and thus learn to become an adult.’