Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 13:34 UK

Pubs are closing, but who cares?

By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News

A derelict Liverpool pub
The rate of pub closures is forecast to accelerate further

Boarded-up boozers are a familiar sight in towns, villages and suburbs alike, so news that UK pubs are closing at a record rate should not come as a surprise.

Almost every news story about the decline of the local comes awash with nostalgia (not to mention the phrase "Last orders..." or "Time called..." being shoe-horned into the headline.)

But given there are still more than 53,000 of them across the UK, does losing a few pubs really matter?

I know it's tough out there, but a lot of pub closures are due to standards dropping
Mark Hopkins
Publican

Among brewing industry figures, publicans and customers there is some general consensus about why pubs fall by by the wayside - which they are doing at a rate of 52 each week, according to the British Beer and Pub Association.

The more diplomatic say establishments fail because they do not meet customer needs.

Others less subtly argue it is because they are "just crap".

'Not listening'

Publicans failing to respond to their customers and not providing the services they want is an industry problem says Mark Hopkins, who took over the Black Swan in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, five years ago, after it had closed down.

Now an increasing slice of his custom is coming from surrounding villages, where the local pub has shut.

"You just have to listen to the customer and respond to what they want, not what you want," he says, adding that supplying the right range of drinks and food is just part of it.

A friendly welcome and polite, presentable bar staff have helped make his business a success, Mr Hopkins adds, not to mention the clean toilets which are a key barometer for "ladies judging a business".

"I know it's tough out there, and I've had my share of hard times, but a lot of pub closures are due to standards dropping," Mr Hopkins adds.

Two women in a London bar
We've changed from an industrial society to more of a service industry
Mark Hunter
Chief executive, Coors

"People need to be made welcome, whether they are a regular or a first-time customer. If they are going to spend £10, they have to feel it has been earned from them."

More to shut

Clearly, not every pub which struggles is being badly run.

The smoking ban and high alcohol duty have been blamed for many of the closures.

And with rising unemployment, pay freezes and diminishing savings rates, perhaps the pub is less appealing when you can buy a bottle of wine or a four-pack of lager in the supermarket for the same price as a glass at your local.

Meanwhile, developers making tempting offers for buildings has been another big threat to the industry - though one that has taken a back seat since the slide in property prices.

Through a combination of these issues, UK alcohol sales are shifting from the pub to the shop.

And the chief executive of Coors, the producer of Carling lager, has predicted that a quarter of UK pubs are set to disappear over the next decade.

But in comments to analysts Mark Hunter claimed this was "no bad thing" for the beer industry - adding that too many establishments had failed to modernise.

"These are pubs from a period in history where their proposition is no longer relevant, where we've changed from an industrial society to more of a service industry," Mr Hunter said.

"Those pubs that survive will have strong hospitality propositions and consumers will enjoy a better experience in the medium to long term."

His comments contrast with "save the pub" campaigns from the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) and the BBPA, which urge the government help to support the pub industry.

The General Elliot, Bedminster, Bristol, Copyright: Pete Yeates
There has been a lot of research that shows pubs are an incredibly important to communities
Jonathan Mail
Camra

Both organisations are adamant that pubs contribute far more than the jobs they create and the tax they bring in.

Vulnerable

Camra estimates that about 40,000 of the UK's boozers are so-called community pubs - those which serve the people who live or work around them.

And the latest BBPA research suggested that it was these local pubs that were most vulnerable, while, in contrast, branded pubs and cafe-style bars were opening at a rate of two a week.

"There has been a lot of research that shows pubs are incredibly important to communities," says Camra's Jonathan Mail.

Benefits include supporting local charities and sports teams, allowing social interaction and providing a place to drink in a safe, regulated and controlled environment, he adds.

Meanwhile, relaxing in a pub environment can improve health and well-being, Mr Mail argues.

"We would not argue that every pub should stay open, because there are circumstances that pubs become unviable.

"But the vast majority are viable businesses which could have a positive and sustainable future."



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