October 2011

Bar Humbug

New bar openings do not represent any kind of adequate substitute for lost pubs

“WE MAY have lost a lot of pubs,” the argument goes, “but plenty of new bars have sprung up in their place.” However, the reality is that it’s not remotely a like-for-like exchange.

For a start, the bars aren’t opening in the places where pubs have closed. In fact, they’re very much concentrated in middle-class urban enclaves. There may be a cluster in Chorlton, but they’re not spread evenly across the board. In recent years, the large Cheshire village of Helsby has lost two of its four pubs. Are there any new bars to replace them? What do you think? It’s not much use if you have to go eight miles down the road to Chester to find one.

Most of these new bars are targeted at the younger end of the market and have little to offer the more mature pubgoer. They don’t have the across-the-board appeal of proper pubs. And, although there are some honourable exceptions, most offer nothing of interest on the beer front. What is more, how can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees? Most will be fly-by-night operations with a limited lifespan and no continuity.

Realistically, the idea that the growth of new bars offers any kind of adequate replacement for closed pubs, except in very limited circumstances, is absurd. Chorlton is not representative of the rest of the world, and is very much the exception.

Supermarket Sweep

Making it harder to convert them to something else won’t save pubs if the underlying demand isn’t there

I REMEMBER on CAMRA trips many years ago a song being sung with the refrain “The brewery tap’s a supermarket now.” And in recent years that has proved all too prophetic, with a number of pubs in the local area closed and replaced with the likes of Tesco Express. This may be a cause for regret, but in reality it is a symptom of the decline of the pub trade, not a cause.

If you want to bulldoze the existing building and replace it, it requires planning permission, but if you want to create a supermarket in a former pub it doesn’t. But refusal of planning permission won’t guarantee the survival of a pub if there isn’t sufficient trade. Many local residents are likely to actively prefer a small supermarket to a scruffy, run-down pub that is a frequent source of late-night noise and fights, and councillors will inevitably listen to their views. If these pubs were thriving community hubs, then nobody would be looking to close them down and turn them into something else. But, sadly, they’re not.

It has also been suggested that local communities should be given the right to buy up closed pubs and run them themselves. This may work in close-knit villages in the Lake District, but it’s unlikely to be of much interest to the neighbours of large urban pubs like the Four Heatons or the Southern Hotel. The most likely result if some kind of “cooling off period” is introduced for people to try to raise the money to buy them is pubs remaining closed and blighted for months with no realistic prospect of ever coming back to life. In general, local communities are more likely to want developers to get on with it and build a block of flats or a supermarket as soon as possible.

No amount of tinkering with planning regulations will save pubs in any significant numbers if the underlying demand isn’t there in the first place. If you are really concerned for the future of pubs, you need to look at the underlying reasons why people have stopped visiting them.

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