Last orders for many pubs, but hope is brewing
RECOVERY is under way and Britain has the fastest-growing economy in the developing world. If anyone is celebrating, it’s not down the pub – an institution seemingly still in decline.
“It wasn’t long ago that we were talking about 18 pub closures a week,” says Steve Westby, Nottingham chairman of beer and pubs watchdog Camra – the Campaign for Real Ale. “But the latest quoted figure is 31, and given the economic recovery I think that must be down to lifestyle changes.”
The British boozer has taken a battering from a seven-year economic collapse which cut customers’ disposable income.
The low margins left to tenants after they pay pub companies for their beer.
And competition from supermarkets and other off-licences whose offers now seriously undercut pub prices.
A typical deal in Tesco, for example, is £5 for three 500ml bottles of quality premium-strength ale – that’s a fiver for almost three pints; you’d pay at least a tenner for the pub draught equivalent. “People are buying cheap beer at supermarkets and staying in and drinking in front of the TV instead of going to the local,” says Mr Westby. “It’s a pity, because when the pub goes, community spirit goes with it.
“You have to be wary of alcohol abuse. In a pub you are in a controlled environment. There are landlords, staff and customers who can say, ‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’ That may not happen at home and it’s a hidden danger.”
Recent Nottingham closures include pubs that were once the social hubs of their neighbourhoods. According to Camra, Greater Nottingham has lost 130 pubs in the past ten years, 73 of them in the city itself – although pubs in the heart of Nottingham are more likely to survive. The bright lights of NG1 will guarantee young footfall at weekends and anecdotal evidence suggests midweek trade is returning.
“However a lot of the vulnerable pubs are those in the suburbs, like those built in the 1950s and 1960s by Shipstone and Home,” says Mr Westby.
There are inner-city blackspots. From the old Sneinton market, turn into Southwell Road and Carlton Road and five out of six pubs on the St Ann’s side have closed.
Mr Westby agrees that pub companies’ beer prices put extra financial pressure on licensees. Tied managers are reluctant to complain publicly about their overheads and “pubcos” defend their tariffs.
But the fact remains that it’s a different game from half a century ago when pub pints were cheaper in real terms, there were no alcohol unit naggings from the Government, smokers were welcome and society took a more indulgent view of drinkers who drove themselves home.
It is much harder to get people into pubs in the 21st century, in which the only good news has been the 1p cut in beer duty in each of past two Budgets.
But there is evidence that failing pubs can be turned round – even in the suburbs.
Take the Horse and Jockey in Stapleford, which went from auction lot to Camra Regional Pub of the Year in the time it takes to pull a pint of bitter.
Acquired by investors Damian McGrath and Ian Jowett, the plan was to turn it into an efficient business. “It was a question of being clear about what we wanted to do,” said general manager Paul Guilford. “The younger age group are not bothered about traditional local pubs so we concentrated on the over-30s.
Because of that we’ve been getting customers not only from Stapleford but a wider area.
“We decided to concentrate on real ale – we have 10 on handpumps. We also champion locally-brewed beers – nine out of the ten are brewed within 20 miles of the pub.
“The only hot food we do is mushy peas, otherwise it’s filled rolls, pork pies, sausage rolls.”
Clearly the Horse and Jockey team has hit its target.
The standard of service, and the public response, caused Camra to vote it Notts Pub of the Year then East Midlands Pub of the Year.
The message is that, in urban areas, at least, well-managed pubs with a clear business vision have a good chance of survival. .