Traditional pubs are under threat but Roy Hattersley, travelling the country, finds hopeby Roy Hattersley / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1980 there were 69,000 pubs in Britain; by 2010, just 51,178
Long before he founded the Salvation Army, William Booth preached the gospel outside the Vine, a public house on the corner of Whitechapel Road, in east London. He also spoke in front of the Blind Beggar, another pub on what was then called the Mile End Waste. One day—when the passers-by were even more aloof than usual—he decided to go inside the Vine to take his message to its customers. He did not record the extent of his success, but for the rest of his life he remembered his first impression of Victorian London’s taprooms. They were, he explained, the only places in which the slum dwellers of the east end could find light, heat and comfort. For many people, therefore, the attraction of the 19th century urban public house was the simple fact that it was more congenial than home.
Increased prosperity, combined with competition from new forms of entertainment, has certainly contributed to the fall in the number of public houses. According to the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), in 1980 there were 69,000 pubs in Britain. By 2000, the number had declined to 60,800 and by 2010, 51,178. But the reduction cannot be attributed solely to a change in tastes and higher levels of disposable income. The BBPA blames the beer tax. It has increased by 42 per cent in four years and is now 12 times as high as the duty paid in Germany.
Yet, over the same period, the rate of decline has decelerated. In 2009, pubs closed down at the rate of 52 a week. Now the weekly closure rate is a mere 12. One conclusion to draw from this is that in the early 2000s, the pubs that went out of business were already on the margin of viability. An alternative conclusion is that the more flexible parts of the industry have adjusted to the new world of complicated consumer choice.
Describing what is happening to the British pub is complicated by the difficulty of defining what it is. The BBPA does not even try; despite containing the word “pub” in its name, the association welcomes wine bars and bistros into its membership, meaning that the pub has never had a single or certain description. Country inns and the town pubs always differed in ambience, and often in amenities. Their clienteles were different and pubs tend to take on the character of their customers. Although prosperity, television, the internet and cheap air travel have smoothed out most fundamental differences between Britons, now a more discriminating nation wants to indulge its individuality in little ways. Drinkers have strong views about the character of their local, meaning that, to succeed, a pub has to fit into a niche.