Back in April, following the inevitable increase in beer tax in the budget, I asked whether this spelt the end for the British pub. At this time pubs were closing at the alarming rate of 39 per week. This week research from the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) shows that things have got even worse: the rate of pub closures has increased to 52 pubs per week, with 2,400 having going out of business in the past year.
The primary reason given for the closures is the recession: everyone is too skint to drink. You could, of course, argue that this is a boon for the pub trade as people are driving to drown their sorrows!
Hiking beer tax every year certainly doesn’t help pubs stay afloat, and surely, in the long term, it can’t be good for the economy either. If people aren’t drinking, then the Government isn’t getting the tax – the BBPA estimate that pub closures have cost the Government £254 million in tax in the past year. They also reckon that 461 bar jobs are being lost a week, so now, instead of paying their taxes, these ex-bar staff are claiming around £1.53 million a week in jobseeker’s allowances.
There are other reasons for pub closures, and chief amongst them must be the smoking ban. I am a bit conflicted over this issue. As a non-smoker, I was delighted when the ban came in. The problem is, no matter how much we non-smokers complain about smoking in pubs, the fact is that smokers stereotypically spend more time and money in pubs, so if the ban drives them out it has a big impact on takings. I therefore consider it the duty of non-smokers to take up the slack: I’m trying to do my bit!
The large pub companies also get their share of the blame. The Commons Business and Enterprise Committee found that their behaviour was contributing to the sharp rise in pub closures – surely as obviously self-defeating as the Government’s tax increases. This certainly seems to have been blamed as a major contributing factor in the recent closure of the Brunswick.
Not all pubs are suffering equally: of the 52 pubs closing each week, apparently 40 of them are local pubs serving small communities, whereas branded pubs and café-style bars are doing very nicely thank you. This seems counter-intuitive as these bars tend to be frequented by younger people who, I would have thought, were likely to be most impacted by the recession. My experience in Eastgate Street suggests that these pubs stay empty until quite late in the evening, presumably as their punters stay home ‘pre-loading’ on cheap supermarket booze.
My intuitive analysis of Gloucester pubs suggests that the most successful pubs are those with a community element. Ruth at the Cross Keys in Cross Keys Lane talks about ‘building a pub culture, not just a drinking culture’ and this seems to be the key. The pubs in Barton and Tredworth seemed busy because they have become an extension of people’s front rooms. They involve themselves in the wider community, hosting sports teams and charity events.
The bar staff in successful pubs know their customers and are able to banter with them, encouraging regulars. This is true even in the centre of town, in places like the Pig Inn the City, the Cross Keys and Café Rene, for instance. These pubs are where you are most likely to find live music and other events. Because they know their regulars, landlords are able to get this right. They are also able to carve a niche for themselves so they are not in direct competition with each other.
So, what’s to be done? Well, first of all, if you care about the pubs get out and drink in them! The coming week provides the perfect opportunity, because the Gloucester Blues Festival starts on Saturday.
It starts in the Park, but then the Blues Trail goes on all week in some of the city’s best pubs (see http://www.gloucesterblues.co.uk/blues_schedule.html). So get out there and support live music, support your local pub and feel virtuous about doing your bit whilst having some fun.