For people who care about their food

When is a pub not a pub?

There was an interesting piece on the BBC’s website by Home Affairs editor Mark Easton the other day, pondering the question of whether pubs in the UK are actually going bust – as various trade bodies claim – or whether they’re evolving.

Stories about pubs closing have abounded in recent years, often in connection with the effects of the smoking bans imposed by the various administrations around the country – and the level of tax on beer compared with wines, spirits and alco-pops. A favourite angle (one deployed by the BBC from time to time, it should be said) is the disastrous effect a pub closure has on a small village community.

But it seems that a certain amount of wool is being pulled over our eyes. Easton’s piece suggests that many of the pubs that are being “lost” aren’t actually closing; they’re shifting the scope of their activities. And yet they may be doing virtually exactly the same as they were before.

It’s just a question of whether they sell food, and how much of it they sell. Once they sell more than a certain number of meals, they’re no longer a pub, but a restaurant.



The BBC story isn’t altogether clear on what the real statistics are, and in fairness that’s probably far more down to the market analysis company than it is to Easton. (And that in turn is probably a result of the brewery companies asking for the figures that best support their case. If they can present a convincing picture of an industry in crisis, then they’re far more likely to gain MPs’ support for lower taxes.)

But it does seem clear that the number of traditional boozers supplying nothing more than drink, fags and bar snacks is declining, while the number of bars supplying meals of one kind or another is on the up.

In principle, that may be a good thing – although sometimes it’s nice to be able to go out for a drink without feeling that you’re taking up one of the establishment’s dining tables.

But if this is a shift in the UK’s social habits, then let’s hope that consumer expectations bring about a change for the better in pub grub. We’ve had some great meals in pubs. But we’ve had far too many shockers along the way too!

4 Responses to “When is a pub not a pub?”

  1. UK Pubs

    Whilst I’m sure there are many changes afoot (pubs doing things differently, opening up accommodation, etc. etc.) in the pub industry, I’m pretty sure that there are many closing.

    In the town where I live, there’s plenty of evidence for this. Pubs that were once thriving on an evening aren’t even bothering to open. Others have already closed and seen a complete change of use.

    Pubs have been hit from so many directions (cheap supermarket booze, smoking ban, recession, etc.) that I suppose it’s little wonder.

  2. Mr Not Delia

    As you say, it’s not a great surprise – but it is a great shame.

    The largish village in Shropshire where I lived in my teens and early twenties had four pubs until recently. One closed in the last year, and it looks as if the land is going to be redeveloped for housing. I’m not sure what will happen to the pub building itself – it was the second oldest building in the village, apparently. 🙁

  3. Buddyboy

    Pubs, like any other business, are a function of public demand. If the public wants them, they will survive, even prosper if the demand is great enough. If the demand is diminishing, pubs will close. Either way, the public is getting what they want. If smoking bans and other measures are occurring, it’s because again the public wants them, one way or another. It’s a sign of a healthy economy when it is public demand which drives business, rather than some artificial intervention driven by such things as resistance to change or sentimental memories of the way things used to be.

  4. Mr Not Delia

    Sorry, Buddyboy, but I don’t think it’s as simple as you’re suggesting. When you’re talking about “the public” with regard to the economy and to legislation, you’re talking about two different beasts.

    Public demand driving business simply implies that there are enough consumers within the public as a whole that demand an economic good. “The public” isn’t a homogeneous mass – it’s composed of individual consumers, each exercising their own individual choices. Those who choose to buy beer in pubs will go to pubs. Those who choose to buy beer in supermarkets and drink at home will do that instead.

    Smoking bans and other legislative measures, on the other hand, don’t even have to be supported by a majority of the public – only a majority in the legislature at the time the vote’s taken. However, their effect is global – in so much as economic players have a choice, it’s between compliance and penalties. Legislation is the artificial intervention par excellence!.

    There were plenty of attempts by various individual landlords (and at least one chain, JD Wetherspoons) to run non-smoking pubs in the Eighties and Nineties. None of them were terribly successful – the pubs generally closed not long after opening, and JD Wetherspoons’ non-smoking lounges were generally near-empty.

    And the fact that there was a decline in the pub trade that coincided with the introduction of the smoking ban – well before the start of the recession – suggests that in this instance at least it wasn’t public demand driving business.

    You may be right when you say that it’s a sign of a healthy economy when it is public demand which drives business. But I think you’d have to look long and hard to find an economy like that. There are all sorts of non-economic constraints involved – both on public demand and on businesses – which shape (distort?) the economic activities of consumers and suppliers alike.

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