Beer history pubs

How Many Pubs Are We Actually Losing?

We were surprised to note from Ron Pattinson’s very useful compilation of beer- and pub-related statistics that the number of pubs in England and Wales increased in the forty years up to 2001.

What is particularly confusing is that numbers from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) seem to show the opposite. Here they are plotted against each other on a graph:

Graph: UK Government statistics (England and Wales) via Ron Pattinson vs. numbers given by the  BBPA.
UK Government statistics (England and Wales) via Ron Pattinson vs. numbers given by the BBPA for the whole of the UK.

Perhaps the BBPA are defining ‘pubs’ very precisely? Guess we’ll have to save up for a copy of their Bumper Book of Statistics to find out.

We haven’t yet identified a set of UK Government figures that deal specifically with pubs over a very long period, but the graph below is based on their numbers for licences to sell alcohol in England and Wales for 1960 to 2010. (We’ve also used UK population stats from Wikipedia to give a rough on-licence-per-head indicator.)

Graph: on licenses, off licences and on licences per head.

Even assuming that a good number of those new licences are for cafes and restaurants, this doesn’t seem to show a catastrophic collapse in the number of places where booze is available.

This is, of course, just an early morning pondering session, and we’re not drawing any firm conclusions just yet, but we do have a theory: if pubs are closing en masse, it is in post-industrial communities, and is a symptom of localised economic decline rather than a wholesale rejection by communities of the very idea of the pub.

We’ll let Ron have the final word, from a note accompanying his statistics page: ‘All I can remember are pub closures and derelict boozers on every other corner. Just shows the value of subjective observations.’

Can anyone point to reliable statistics on the numbers of pubs opening and closing, ideally from a source other than an industry or lobbying group whose argument depends on a story of woe?

26 replies on “How Many Pubs Are We Actually Losing?”

This is an odd one. It is clear that in certain areas there has been a huge clear out of pubs. I’d guess that in inner city Manchester something like 80% of the pubs have gone in the last 20 years. The last Stockport Pub Guide published in 2009 had about 248 entries (covering all pubs and bars, cask and keg). I reckon about 32 of those have now closed, most permanently, some not. To frank that there have perhaps been no more than half a dozen openings.

On the other hand if you look at the Mancheeter suburb of Chorlton, I reckon the number of outlets there has at least tripled over the past 20 years. It’s therefore a very uneven pictute.

I did a quick Chorlton survey-with-reminiscences back in March. Quote:

A quick summary, which can stand as one person’s record of the rise of the real ale/craft beer bar. (All measurements are taken from the standard reference point of My House.)

Places to drink within ten minutes’ walk, 1998: the Throstle’s Nest, the Seymour, the Royal Oak.

Places to drink within ten minutes’ walk, 2013: the Nip and Tipple, the Hillary Step, Jam Street, De Nada, the Font, Pi, the Marble, the Sedge Lynn, the Beagle. And the Royal Oak.

That’s not counting anywhere with no real ale, or any of the several other bars within fifteen minutes’ walk.

Don’t forget that the law is now such that it does not distinguish, to all intents and purposes (other than by conditions) between a pub and a restaurant. Both have full premises licenses.

So as more places get premises licenses, it does not negate the fact that a lot of pubs are closing. You generally can’t wander into a restaurant just for a drink, but both will have full premises licenses.

I have a copy of the BBPA Statistical Handbook for 2011. Between 1967 and 2004 it shows a growth in the number of full on-licences from 66,000 to 81,000. After that they are lumped in with residential and restaurant licences so it’s harder to tell. I’m not sure whether they’re even separate licensing categories any more. Over the same period, the number of restaurant licences grew from 5,000 to 21,000. There are more and more licensed premises that aren’t what you or I would call pubs.

While it’s certainly true that “working-class areas”, as broadly defined, have suffered most from pub closures, they affect all kinds of locations. The only kinds of areas that seem to be immune are the centres of large cities which function as entertainment hubs, towns such as York and Bath which are powerful tourist magnets, and prosperous urban enclaves such as Chorlton and Didsbury.

While no-one would of course equate a restaurant with a pub (although we all know oubs which try and dress themselves up as restaurants), quite a lot of new openings are bars of one sort or another. While perhaps not pubs in the traditional sense of the word, they are often someone’s local and can be very pleasant places in which to have a drink.

It might be useful to pick a few sample areas — a major city and its suburbs, a small town, a village in a rural setting — and carry out a more detailed survey of openings/closings over, say, the last forty years. (We’ve been reading old sociological studies of ‘communities’ and this is the approach they tend to take.)

Otherwise, at the moment, we’re still more-or-less in ‘I reckon’ and ‘sez you’ territory.

Hillgate, Stockport – over 30 years, 1 opening, 9 closures. 19 pubs at one time or other, 10 remain, 2 do not serve cask beer. (The Royal Oak closed after that write-up)

Not by any means a representative area, and indeed fairly typical of the kind of town centre fringe areas that have suffered badly from closures, but a piece of ready-made analysis.

Pick a village at random… well, OK, not random. The one where I live: Willingham, Cambridge. Population ~4000. Probably relatively affluent. When we moved here in May 2012 there were 2 pubs (both Greene King!), there are now 3 pubs as a tiny former local bank building has been converted into a “micropub”. *Growth* !!! 🙂

Wikipedia says of the village “there were still 7 pubs in 1933 and 5 in 1982”. So sometime between 1982 and now 3 were closed, 2 going to residential and the most recent loss going on to become an Indian restaurant (so no loss of licensed premises there).

(Wikipedia claims there were 19 pubs in the distant past, probably when some pubs were simply people’s front rooms.)

Purely anecdotally, our local high street has gone from nine pubs twenty years ago, to eight today – although that disguises a couple of closures and a new one. The one that we lost was … no great loss.

Of course, that’s all pub and pub-like drinking establishments – we’ve got three places that I’d call “proper” pubs, and have had those since I moved here, and one ‘destination’ beer place which is currently in a state of flux.

To put it another way, our high street doesn’t reflect a great loss of pubs. It does, however, now have 142 coffee shops versus the two that were here when I arrived 🙂

Headingley, Leeds – 10 bars/pubs now, 5 pubs 20 years ago. There would be similar statistics in Horsforth and Chapel Allerton. These are local hubs which offer an alternative to going into the centre of Leeds for the night. Is this just a sign of the way pub/bar going has changed?

Whilst the overall numbers are certainly interesting, pub going seems to have changed immensely with some areas suffering drastically and others thriving. What I would find more interesting (and is probably more relevant?) is a study into how people use pubs/bars. How many people still have a proper local? When people go out are they just going to the one pub or going on a bit of a crawl? If the sociology was linked to the numbers that would be really interesting.

Remember here that my context is mostly from walking around in London, but it seemed to me like there was a pub every 70 feet or so. Now, I realize that it is an entertainment hub, but even when you get out into Hackney it’s probably still rather a lot of pubs; maybe one every two blocks. How many pubs can you possibly need?

I can certainly appreciate that it would be a different story if it were a small town and one of the two pubs closed. Suddenly, you’ve lost 50% of the pubs. I just don’t think that the statistics are telling the whole story in this case.

I know in some ways the London pub market is quite detached from that in the rest of the country, but I get the impression that the outer suburbs and many of the more working-class inner-urban areas have seen the same pattern of pub loss that has happened elsewhere – maybe made worse by more redevelopment pressure. There’s a fair scattering of London pubs on my Closed Pubs blog, including this one right outside a commuter station with loads of footfall.

That wasn’t our experience of living in Walthamstow at all. Overall pub numbers might have reduced (this paper suggests as much) but the number of pubs you’d actually dare to enter increased dramatically in our time. In 2003, we struggled to find anywhere to have a decent pint; when we left in 2010, we were spoiled for choice.

Same goes for Hackney, and maybe for Leytonstone to some extent.

Friends in Camberwell, Streatham and Shepherd’s Bush report similar experiences.

So, in short, I reckon your impression is wrong, but then ‘reckoning’ stuff is easy. Need numbers and facts!

Numbers? Imprecise without digging, however: In my ~3 years of monitoring/editing/being-generally-aware-of the North Herts CAMRA “pubs” database (covering anything pub-like, real ale or not)… a handful of pubs were lost (most likely for good), a small handful of dormant pubs re-opened, and I believe 1 totally new one came into existence. (More of a rather fancy restaurant, but it has a public bar with both keg and cask draught. Interestingly it was the last place I knew of to be serving cask BrewDog anywhere in Herts or Cambs!)

In the near future we’re expecting two more completely new additions of formerly non-pub locations. Both of them Wetherspoon. (I bet a lot of Wetherspoon places fit this bill – they often go into large non-pub sites, same for some “bar” type chains that many British folk don’t think of as “pubs”?)

A resource… Hertfordshire CAMRA newsletter editor Steve Bury does a yearly “pubs losses and gains” round-up covering the whole county. The most recent one is in issue 257: (page 14)

Here’s the previous one: (page 22)

And presumably subtract 6 from the number for subsequent yearly summaries.

Thanks, Yvan — that’s really good stuff.

General narrative is ‘lots of closures, doom and gloom’, which seems to be backed up by the numbers, at first glance — is that right?

(Not a bad newsletter generally: have now ordered John Young’s autobiography having read the review!)

Across the county there was certainly a net loss of “pubs” in my short time living there (4 years). Doom and Gloom has probably mounted up over the years – Steve is a CAMRA old-hand who has probably written obituaries for hundreds of pubs in his time.

I don’t feel the “doom and gloom” personally as those pubs that have been lost that I know were all pretty terrible and sources of good cask ale are on the increase. (“Craft beer” doesn’t come into it – it barely exists as a concept in Cambridge, let alone North Hertfordshire! We see a handful of beers that trendy cityfolk might call “craft”.) When I moved to Hitchin in 2008 there were 2 places I’d say were reliable for an interesting & good condition pint that I would recommend to friends. Now I’d say there are 4, with 2 others worth trying – perhaps 2 more on the way. One of them being the Wetherspoon. I’d predict that 1 or 2 of the older ones will not survive the increased competition… (one merely for lack of will, the other too pressured by their pub-co.) [As an side: pub beer festivals are certainly on the rise.]

Many that have been lost or are borderline are out in the countryside villages… where communities are shrinking (I’m told) and due to changes in habits pubs are less well attended. These pubs simply don’t have enough custom – I can recall at least two landlords complaining that if the locals want to keep their pub they should actually use it. If I was a local in such a place I’d be feeling the Doom & Gloom quite heavily.

Cambridge – I have been working here for 5 years now. Like Hitchin sources of a “decent” pint are on the rise. With at least 5 *good* additions to my list of pubs I like to visit. Yet net pub count in Cambridge is probably slightly down. (I hear of losses every now and then – they’re always pubs I have no desire to visit.)

But regardless of whether there are now a few better pubs in these becoming gentrified areas there could still be fewer overall (those you were scared to go in may well have closed) – that tends to be my experience of London outside the centre, numbers down quality up.

And which bits of London aren’t gentrified/gentrifying these days? Never thought we’d see Deptford go…

I think the last time I felt properly who-you-looking-at uncomfortable in a pub it was in Whitechapel, for what that’s worth. Mind you, there are pubs in Manchester (not to mention Salford) where I’ve never felt uncomfortable, because it’s never crossed my mind to go in.

well in 1991 Suffolk had more than 900 pubs, the most upto date count from June 2013 has it around 713 now, so a drop of probably around 200 in the past 22 years.

What that doesnt show so well is nearly 80 of those closures happened in the last 5 years alone, the 5 years prior to that only 36 closed, and before that it averaged at around 9 per year by all accounts.

now lots of people might say well as Suffolk is quite rural, it must be the villages losing their only pub thats changed, actually not the case its the urban areas that have lost out the most.

as we know in Ipswich (which might support the post industrialisation argument, though I do think Tolly Cobbold plays a massive part as do other aspects in this as well) about 100 years ago there were approx 270 pubs, whereas now there are probably only around 60 currently, though its constantly changing. Of note perhaps 🙂 there are now about 50 supermarkets…which make up nearly half the chunk of the 122 registered off licenses in the town.

so is it doom & gloom though, no Im siding more half glass full for the moment, because yes alot of pubs have closed,and some are probably missed more than others, but there are still new pubs opening all the while,including several new builds, and there are more brewers, more free houses and actually more choice than there was 20 years back.

Its only when you do step back and visit the more rural parts that still kind of reflect how things were like a while back where all the local pubs are all owned by the same brewery and all sell the same stuff, you realise what that change has done.

I grew up in Crookes in Sheffield and only minutes down the hill was Walkley. I drank in both areas, but mainly Crookes where every one of the 6 pubs sold real ale. I can’t think of a single pub closure in Crookes other than some family friends (when we were growing up) who had a house that had recently been converted from a pub – but that would have been 30 years ago.

In Walkley, when I lived there in 2000 there were 15 pubs – only 6 of which sold real ale, 5 regularly. Visiting a few weeks ago the number of pubs has dwindled to 6 but interestingly 5 of them now sell real ale. Walkley was always a grim ale venue (one pub even advertised on a sign We DO NOT serve real ale!) but now its difficult not to find it. So that means more pubs are worth going in.

Whether or not this means the best ones have survived is debatable – in fact I tend to think not. It does however support the theory that ts not all doom and gloom, and suggests maybe that pubs selling real ale do better, maybe bucking the (perceived) trend by appealing to a broader customer demographic.

And then the Good Pub Guide dives in ….. and CAMRA goes ape-shit ……… I actually misheard the R4 Today prog, and wondered if this was something let out of the (GBG) bag, but no.

There seems to be a good deal of hysteria around, but perhaps we should reflect:

It may well be bizarre – and certainly bloody awful marketing whether to the pubs that are listed, the advertizers, or the punters themselves when you ‘diss’ the industry.

How much validity to the estimate given (not forgetting the openings and re-openings of new pubs – there’s one in Soho that had been a Ping Pong or some such for years, now re-opened OK more of a Tavern/eating house but as a pub as well with real ale – also given an airing) there is some truth in the sad boozers flogging dodgy keg beers and coming to a natural end.

There are those ‘locals’ that are trading well for their market, and well worth defending against the depredations – Morden Tavern, Castle Battersea, Chesham Hackney – all come to mind. Not all will serve real ale (or do but badly kept).

In any event is it all mere speculation or does anyone really have a grasp on what is really happening out there (not least CAMRA 🙂 ) see

My swift ‘arve’s worth

One (CAMRA SELondon) colleague comments:

A sad boozer is only sad because it is badly run. In other hands there is no reason why it cannot be turned around and become a thriving pub. We have seen it many times.

I never write off any pub, and will campaign to save them all. There is no such thing as a “natural end” – only pubs which succumb to the greed of property developers and supermarkets.

and I replied:

I grant you it is possible – the Constitution on the Regents Canal near St Pancras is a case in point. But others, where the local population may have significantly changed (like Whitechapel where I currently work), or along the Scotswood Road in Newcastle upon Tyne, with the wholesale disappearance of industry, and others I could cite, going back 50 or more years, suggest that there is an economic cycle to most things – ok socio-economic cycle – and that predates supermarkets and developers (modern version).

Not all pubs are defendable or saveable. And that generally means we have to select and prioritise.

He responded:

Yes – you’re right. There are some areas where there simply is no longer a population to support all the old pubs.

But here in my patch, south east London, I don’t think that applies. Everywhere is densely populated with people who, given a decent boozer, would happily pay it a visit. I believe that people have stopped going to many of the area’s pubs because they are badly run, not because there is no demand for the pubs any more.

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