The recent analysis by the Office of National Statistics about pub closures (the strangely named “Economics of Ale”) makes for sober reading. The headline is as follows: “Since 2008, nearly a quarter of pubs in the UK have closed – but the turnover of the pub industry is holding up and employment is on the rise”.
The second part of this sentence is important because much of the news about the state of the market tends to be pessimistic. The negative news focuses on the number of pub closures, the first part of the sentence, and makes for easy headlines for journalists less interested in the bigger picture. These articles invariably include a picture of boarded up pub. Of course it is absolutely right to report on the number of pubs closing – 18 per week (CAMRA - August 2018), 11,000 in the last decade according to the ONS report. And it helps the BBPA, ALMR and others lobby the government about VAT reform, business rates and Beer Duty.
What the ONS report highlights though is that the employment in pubs is 6% higher in 2018 than 2008, with this increase more pronounced in rural pubs. This is positive news. The “average” pub now employs eight people in 2018 compared with five in 2008. As most of us know, this reflects the changing structure of the pub market – the number of small pubs has slumped from 38,830 to 22,840, while the number of medium and large ones has risen from 13,670 to 15,975. Although the growth of micropubs and the recent good performance of the wet-led pub sector are beacons of good news this overall change is driven by the rise of eating out. People used to eat at home and go out to drink, now they drink at home and go out to eat.
There’s fewer pubs now but the ONS report the total turnover of pubs and bars has held up, remaining flat since 2008, once inflation is taken into account. The remaining pubs and bars appear to have soaked up the custom from those pubs that have closed down.
The pub market is reinventing itself and adapting to changing consumer behaviour and needs. The modern community pub – brilliantly expressed by Oakman Inns for example – welcomes women and children, young and old, book clubs and beer festivals. Pubs are where some of the best food in the country is served. It’s the only place you can drink cask ale. It’s where you get the best gin and tonic served and have cocktails made in front of your very eyes. It’s a growth sector with vitality not a smokestack industry in terminal decline. The statistics don’t lie.
And this is the positive message we need to send to young people looking for a career in hospitality. The industry needs young talented people like never before. Companies like M&B, Greene King, Marston’s and Stonegate are doing their very best to promote Apprenticeships. Yet, recent research conducted by Morar HPI highlighted that half of all 18-30 year olds didn’t know the industry offered such opportunities. Too many are put off by an image of long hours, low pay and rude customers. These are well known challenges for the sector, but what doesn’t help is any kind of perception that pubs and bars are “dying out”.
What would be welcome is journalists, commentators and pressure groups reporting the whole story, not just the negative part of the story.
This was first published on Propel Friday Opinion (Nov 30 2018)