Charting the decline of the Great British pub is as much a national pastime as watching house prices. This week, brought fresh hand wringing. Some 150 pubs closed over the first three months of this year in England and Wales, according to widely-covered statistics from Altus Group.
However, the woes of pubs are less terminal than declinists claim. A proportion reopen under new management. And some trends responsible for boozer gloom are themselves positive.
True, the closure rate has picked up from last year. High energy prices continue to push many landlords out of business.
Some 6,600 pubs — 14 per cent of the total — shut down in England and Wales over the past decade. Contributory factors included high taxes on beer and the mismanagement of some chains as highly leveraged property plays.
The disappearance of traditional British pubs also tracks the decline of heavy industry. Pubs were once a place where men would gather to recuperate after a day of physical work. The transition to a service-based economy has changed drinking patterns.
There are more women in the workplace, who drink less as a rule. Men with families spend more time with them. Though women still do the most childcare and housework, the male contribution has increased. Owners convert many redundant pub sites into housing, which is badly-needed in the overcrowded UK. These are surely all positive trends.
Pubs have adapted to threats before. One example is the strength of beer. Before the first world war it was about twice what it is today. It was reduced following public outrage at problem drunkenness, notes pub historian Dr Patrick Chaplin.
The demise of the Great British pub is greatly exaggerated. Many pubs are working hard to attract customers with good food and live entertainment. A trip to a big city pub on a Thursday or weekend night testifies to that. Pub sales were 5.5 per cent higher in February than in 2019, thinks Jefferies. Like-for-like sales at Wetherspoons were 9 per cent higher in the seven weeks to mid-March than the same period in 2019.
A third of the boozers that close subsequently reopen. That helps slow the overall rate of attrition. Some 400 pubs per year disappear for good. The decline is likely to plateau. But if it did not, the last pub in Britain would not close for another century.
Lex is the FT’s concise daily investment column. Expert writers in four global financial centres provide informed, timely opinions on capital trends and big businesses. Click to explore