Why we SHOULD be concerned about the decline of Pubs

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on April 30, 2009
Posted Under: Drinking,Music,Pubs

Stats recently published in the Telegraph show that the number of pubs in Britain has declined by more than 10 per cent in the past decade. By the end of the year, it is forecasted that there will be just 52,000 pubs in the UK compared with 61,000 a decade ago.

So why should we be worried? The answer has nothing to do with that sentimental bollocks about protecting traditional english culture. Nor is it about maintaining an abundance of places to get hammered. Rather it is because pubs represent one of the most important sources of public space for communities throughout this country.

An obvious point I might begin by making is that Britain – notwithstanding the current weather – is a cold and wet country. People need and want places outside the home where they can meet and converse, and by and large they want those places to be sheltered from the elements. In this sense pubs -as places where you can simply meet, relax and speak in the company of others – are an almost unique resource. Unlike London restraunts, you don’t have to pay silly money for the luxury of sitting there until your table is very assertively cleared. If you so wish, a 3 quid pint will get you through to closing time.

But the role of pubs – communal and cultural – is so much greater than this. Where do you think music comes from? Believe it or not, not many rockstars begin by playing at the 02. Day in day out, the backrooms or basements rooms of our public houses will be hosting open mic nights and smaller gigs. There will be niche audiences listening to the kind of music that doesnt get airplay on mtv. There will be comedy. There will be activists like us, who need a warm, cheap and convenient place for their public meetings.

In a privatised but squashed together metropolis like london, we get a great deal simply from pubs existing. They are good for us individuals and they are good for our culture. But as a society we do not show them a lot of love. Notwithstanding the very partial relaxation of Britain’s absurd liscensing laws, the Labour government’s policy over the past decade has basically been anti-pub. The ban on smoking combined with repeated above-inflation increases in the beer tax have made it increasingly difficult for pubs to survive, and to continue providing these crucial communal spaces. It is my opinion that the government does not simply need to moderate its policy. Instead what we need is an about turn. Instead of seeing pubs primarily in terms of the social ills with which they are (dubiously) associated, public policy should be premised on the idea that pubs are a social and cultural good. Policy makers should be concerned with ensuring that pubs survive and flourish.

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Reader Comments


Is there any evidence that the smoking ban has harmed pubs? That’s not a rhetorical question – I’m genuinely curious.

Written By Owen on May 1st, 2009 @ 8:29 am

Crikey! I agree with all this. Pubs are good places, especially since the smoking ban, and since they started serving coffee and food. Believe me, they used to be nasty smelly uncomfortable places full of drunken men talking past each other. Some pubs wouldn’t let women through the door. And now people of all ages and backgrounds can sit comfortably, listen to good music and comedy, and have conversations with each other, they all start closing down!

Written By julia on May 6th, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

Julia, if the smoking ban had the effect of making pubs more widely appealing they would not have had to bring in a law to institute it. I am completely right on this matter.

Written By Reuben on May 6th, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

Yes Reuben, the free market will sort everything out. Spoken like a true socialist :P Seriously, is there any evidence linking pubs’ current troubles to the smoking ban? I could believe it, but I haven’t heard of any.

Written By Owen on May 7th, 2009 @ 9:35 am

Owen, just been checking out the stats. In the first year after the smoking ban 1200 pubs (roughly 2 per cent) shut. The data in my original post suggested a decline in pubs of 1 per cent per annum. In other words, in the first year after the smoking ban the rate of pub closures increaded by 100%.

As to your first comment, you don’t have to believe in the free market to believe that it can render useful information about consumer preferences.

Written By Reuben on May 7th, 2009 @ 10:29 am

Hi, I’m also wondering! Hope everything is well with you! Would love to see the new line.

Written By TaisseWak on May 25th, 2009 @ 10:02 am
Tom Fletcher

I have to say I am very much in agreement with Reuben about the importance of pubs in British culture and about the role that these communal spaces have played in the development of social trends and etiquette in British history. As far as the smoking ban is concerned, I have always held one view on this: it is not the place of the government to tell a landlord whether his pub should be a venue which allows smoking or which disallows it. A landlord, as a pub is HIS property, should be able to choose. If the government banned smoking in peoples’ own homes there would be outcry. As much as it can be argued that public houses are “public facilities”, at the end of the day, they are privately owned. Yes, they are given licenses to sell alcohol by the local authority, but to be honest that is unrelated.

As far as I am concerned, based on personal experience, as far as averages go, the smoking ban probably hasn’t affected business for pubs. However, this is simply because those pubs which, by their very nature cannot cater for smokers, have lost business and those which can have gained it. The statistics which people ask for never show individual cases and give too broad a picture.

I for one am sick of this government not only advising me how to live my life, but also bringing in rules to enforce it. Over zealous health and safety regulations, the smoking ban, think 25 (as it has now become) to avoid any possible consumption of alcohol by a minor — as if that is going to stop a determined 15 year old from obtaining the stuff! — it has become ludicrous. The nanny state is doing nothing, save wasting money on attempting to give a man a fish so that he’ll eat for a day. If they spent money teaching man to fish, he’d eat for a lifetime by learning from his own mistakes and from the advice of others, without needing to be spoon-fed.

Sorry I went off on a bit of a tangent…but the decline in pubs does, I believe, have a lot to do with my aforementioned points. The increase on beer tax, the smoking bans etc… are all examples of the nanny state. Has anyone done a real cost-benefit analysis of this style of government? If not, I would love to see one carried out!

Written By Tom Fletcher on July 10th, 2009 @ 4:33 am

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