Is it last orders for the great British pub?

Of all our great British institutions the British pub is arguably held in the fondest regard. However, there is no doubt that they are in serious decline, particularly in rural areas where their value to the community is greatest. There were 63,500 pubs in the UK in 1990. By 2018 this number had fallen to 47,600. Although there was a small rise in 2019, the pandemic may have put the final nail in the coffin of many pubs that were just getting by. While many pubs have turned to food to boost income, the number of staff serving food in pubs overtaking bar staff numbers in 2016, there is particular concern over ‘wet’ pubs not serving food.

Of course it could be argued that if pubs are so important to communities, then why are they being abandoned in such large numbers? This blog will briefly go through the potential reasons for the decline and the impact pub closures may have on our society.

I speak from the perspective of someone who has worked in pubs, has some of my best memories sitting in them, as well as a fair bit of time where my memory of them is a bit hazy, and has witnessed and been a part of the change in our society’s habits.

Mr and Mrs Moore looking in at the local

There’s no doubt that the changing culture at the workplace has had an influence on pub use. In the past the trip down the pub was a feature of many work lunchtimes. However the drive for greater work productivity has resulted to a large extent in the curtailment of the lunchtime session.

Of course it’s not just overzealous Human Resources managers who have changed the pub going habits of the British public. A major factor has to be cost, as pubs now compete with cheaper supermarket drink with ‘off-sale’ prices doubling, while pub prices have quadrupled in the last 30 years. This has contributed to supermarket beer sales overtaking pub sales in 2015 and an increasing number of people see the pint or two down the pub as too expensive a luxury.

So why does it matter? Who cares if we are having an ale sitting on the sofa at home, rather than propped up against the bar down our local?

Perhaps more than any other institution the pub is where different social classes and different age groups will come together in a social setting. Pubs also play a role in reducing loneliness, which is an ever increasing factor in a more connected, but equally more fragmented society. As a barman I knew that the chats I had with a few of the regulars who would quietly nurse a couple of pints in the corner, would likely be their main social interaction of the day.

Pubs take us out of the echo chamber of social media, where in the main we only speak to people who see the world the way we do. They give us an opportunity to listen to other views and discuss matters with the benefit of the visual cues and expressions that are absent from the toxic culture of social media. The keyboard warriors that we know so well wouldn’t last two minutes in a pub debate, silenced not by violence, but the consensus of the crowd.

The social interactions that take place within pubs enhance social cohesion, breaking down barriers and creating a sense of community and pride, far more effectively than any flag waving. A loss of a village pub, particularly if it is the last one standing, has such a negative impact as it is often the only location where residents would mix together.

Of course tastes change, but where communities mixing together are replaced by isolated meets in each other’s houses, or just drinking at home alone, we lose something as communities, which can’t be adequately replaced by digital means of social interaction. Now before I’m seen to be painting our pubs and bars as a panacea for all our social discord, I’ve seen plenty of fights in pubs where matters have got out of hand. However, and at the risk of repeating unwanted advice to my teenage daughter, actual real interaction with real people reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings, that are an ever present hazard of social media.

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown us the importance of community and the need for social interaction. Ironically, it has probably been the last straw for many pubs across the UK, at the same time as libraries and youth centres are closing down, starved of public funding. Pubs play a vital role in our communities and bring intangible benefits, which although they may not be able to be counted or measured, benefit UK society as a whole. We should do all we can to support them.

Julian Vaughan April 2021

To find out what you can do to support your local pubs, apart from go and drink in them of course, I recommend taking a look at the CAMRA website which has many ideas around a fair deal for pubs and what to do if your local is under threat.

To end on some good news. The New Inn, Biggleswade, featured in the blog title is looking to re-open before the end of 2021.

***Update April 2022*** The development company which purchased ‘The New Inn’ has now dropped plans to re-open the pub and the ‘Red Lion’ site now has planning permission for a housing development.

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