The decline and fall of the British boozer

Beset by smoking bans, economic crisis and social disapproval, it's a wonder any pubs survive at all.

Jason Smith

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Topics Politics

Britain’s pubs are having a hard time. Just how many pubs are closing depends on who you ask. The Times (London) has suggested it’s 52 per week, the Telegraph says six per day, and the Lost Pub Project lists a grand total of 10,284 departed boozers. Whatever the exact numbers, the pub is a Great British institution under severe pressure, and it’s as likely to be the apparently successful bar as the street-corner dive that is shutting up shop. Why?

Many people point to the increase in health-and-safety legislation, especially the ban on smoking. Other factors include the economic downturn, changes to licensing laws, the availability of cheaper alcohol in supermarkets, and the government’s increasing intolerance of cheap drinks promotions. I would add to this list the changing attitude towards drink-driving in recent decades, which has hit rural pubs hard, and the licensed trade’s inability to innovate. There is some truth in all of these factors, but they do not hard-peg and tap the barrel.

The most important reasons for such large-scale pub closures are the rise of pub companies and, most importantly, the loss of the social purpose which pubs once had.

The rise of the pubco

In 1989, following a report by the UK Monopolies and Mergers Commission, the Conservative government changed the law to end the stranglehold breweries had on pubs. At the time, large brewers owned the majority of pubs and innovation in the industry was at an all-time low. The legislation restricted the number of pubs that big brewers could own and ‘tie’ – that is, force to buy their beers and other products – to 2,000. As a result, the big brewers had to sell off around 22,000 pubs. The new law allowed newcomers to enter the trade, such as All Bar One, O’Neill’s and the Slug and Lettuce chains. Although these chains now seem old-hat, at the time they offered the kind of pubs many younger drinkers wanted and which breweries had been incapable of delivering.

This created an opportunity for independent pubs to spring up, especially in urban centres. When the breweries ran the show, they kept central control over how pubs were run. Now, landlords had the freedom to run their pubs however they wanted.

The industry paid a price for this small opportunity for innovation. New pub companies – pubcos – saw the business of running pubs as secondary to the rapid acquisition of more properties. How a pub is run, if it’s what the locals want, its style or ‘offering’ is not important to pub companies. They care only that the landlord pays his rent and buys his beer from the pubco at highly inflated prices. In turn, this means that pubs have no interest in selling beer, since they make so little profit on it. Beer is sold as a service, a loss leader, and the landlord must make his living selling other products. This is one reason why virtually all pubs now sell food.

Breweries, for all their limitations, had the long-term survival of their product, and therefore the outlets that sold it, at heart. Pub companies have no product of their own, little relationship with the landlord and none with the customer. If a pub goes to the wall, this is of little consequence to the pubco, because the value of the business is in its fixed assets (the building and other infrastructure). The pub can always be sold to another landlord to have a go but, if not, it will be sold on as a ‘development opportunity’.

Those running the pubs get endlessly squeezed. A pub landlord will work on average a 100-hour week and his annual salary on a turnover of £260,000 per annum is likely to be about £25,000 before tax. If the landlord innovates and works hard to increase his profit, the pub company will put his rent up. The major economic reason for pub closures is that pub-company ownership has made it unprofitable for licensees to continue in the profession.

The old-style boozer

The second reason for large-scale pub closures is that pubs changed because society changed.

It was not very long ago that even a small pub consisted of four or even five different rooms: A bar and a lounge, with which we are still familiar; a snug; a G.O. (gentlemen only); the smoke; and often a games room and a separate outdoor for off-sales. You can still see evidence of this history in most older pub buildings. Different types of customer used these different rooms. In many pubs, you would not be served a drink in the lounge unless you wore a tie. Quite often, the only place you would see women, apart from behind the bar, was in the lounge accompanied by their middle-class husbands. The bar was very much a working-class male stronghold. The divisions that existed in wider society were replicated in pubs through demarcation by room.

By the late 1950s, this set-up was considered old-fashioned. People who had not long finished fighting a war for their country were less likely to accept such social boundaries, and their children even less so. There were practical issues as well. The more rooms there are, the more staff are needed to service them, and the higher the wage bill. Through the 1960s and 70s, walls were knocked down with abandon. The standard model was just to have a lounge and a bar.

While pubs also began to be more friendly towards women, the traditional pub did not change that much. Apart from when they opened and closed, pubs were largely unregulated spaces where people made friends, engaged in banter, argued about politics and life and, unless they became violent, were left alone to get on with it. Pubs were unregulated spaces because the state trusted landlords, to whom magistrates had granted a liquor license, to decide what was acceptable and what wasn’t in their own establishment. They were also unregulated because society as a whole would not have them any other way.

Depriving pubs of purpose

As the state began to encroach on people’s personal freedom throughout the 1980s, pubs began to be seen as problematic spaces. More walls were knocked down to create one-room super-pubs because economics demanded that punters be packed in, while regulation demanded that they should always be watched from the bar. This requirement was, on the surface, about tackling the growing use of drugs, but it brought about the model of pubs that is common today, epitomised by the sanitised environment of the JD Wetherspoons chain (see A place where nobody knows your name, by Nathalie Rothschild).

Pubs are a reflection of wider society. In the past, they were the social hubs of the community where parents took their children at roughly their eighteenth birthday as a rite of passage, where political meetings were held in rooms upstairs and where people celebrated important occasions. In the miner’s strike in the Eighties, many pubs became meeting places and organisational hubs for strikers. Pubs were one of the places through which solidarity was expressed; if you walked into the wrong pub, you knew about it quickly.

People who see that they share a common interest with others in their workplace also socialise together and discuss ideas together in their local pub. Political rallies and marches always end in the pub. But as society atomised, and people saw only individual solutions to their problems, pubs lost this social function.

The changes brought in by New Labour’s instinct to regulate private life could happen only because pubs had already lost their social purpose. People who work together do not necessarily drink together anymore; the idea of people with common interests grouping together to achieve shared aims is not flavour of the month. Today’s pubs reflect this individualistic outlook.

As Joe Jackson points out on spiked, pubs are no longer the free, autonomous places they were. Rather than regulation being solely responsible for calling last orders on our pubs, it is this loss of social purpose and the economics of the trade which mean that the bar towels are being draped on the pumps for the last time.

At the moment, pubs are over-regulated, unprofitable, sterile and – apart from selling drink – lack a function. In the light of these many problems, the only thing that is shocking about pub closures to date is that there have been so few.

Jason Smith is a former pub manager and convenor of the Birmingham Salon.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild traced the rise of JD Wetherspoon – the anti-pub. Angus Kennedy said Wetherspoon chain of pubs is policing our behaviour. Tim Black did not appreciate the Home Office proposal to replace pint glasses with plastic cups. Anna Travis thought Xmas boozing was becoming a rather flat affair. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth. Bruno Waterfield looked at how the success of the smoking ban encouraged health officials to discuss the idea of ‘passive drinking’. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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