Pete Robinson: The British Pub - A thesis on it's decline and fall

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For 450 years British pubs and their smoking customers have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship that has survived essentially unchanged...

For 450 years British pubs and their smoking customers have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship that has survived essentially unchanged through wars, periods of extreme poverty and famine, riots, massive social change, the Industrial Revolution, the English Civil War, WW2 rationing, licencing and taxation, opening hour restrictions, many recessions, and a great deal more besides.

Throughout that long and stormy history pubs have NEVER closed in the anything like the numbers they have since July 1st 2007, not even 100 or so years ago when magistrates pursued a policy of drastically reducing pub numbers by refusing to renew licences.

There are pubs closing today that have been serving their communities for 400 years. Imagine the tales these iconic watering holes could tell but tragically they are lost to our culture forever. Yet we dismiss these closures because "some pubs deserve to close" apparently.

I don't believe that. Even the urban community pubs on 'rough' estates and grotty back-street boozers had their place in their respective communities and were trading well enough before 2007.

Yes, pubs have occasionally waned in popularity. In recent times the mass arrival of TV in the 1960s caused a temporary drop off, and there was some gradual erosion in trade throughout the 80's and 90's due at least in part to the plod's manic enforcement of the drink-drive laws along with newly introduced jail terms for offenders.

However since the new millennium pubs had fought their way back to health and by 2006 were more popular than ever, with The Publican reporting overall turnover at a FIVE-YEAR-PEAK. We'd never had it so good, and things could only get better still.

Smokers accounted for over HALF of that income.

Then the trade went collectively mad and ushered in the blanket smoking ban with barely a murmur of protest. The majority of front-line publicans were intelligent enough to have grave concerns. But their voice was drowned out by those upper echelons of the industry, men-in-suits, who presume to speak for us.

Driven by pure greed we were won over by a barrage of bogus statistics coming from ASH, CRUK and the DoH 'proving' that we'd keep our existing smoking customers who'd simply accept the ban as meekly as we had.

The icing on the cake was to be the countless millions of 'new' non-smoking customers who were poised like a coiled spring, awaiting the starting pistol on July 1st 2007 to risk serious injury in the crush to pack our pubs to the rafters as they quaffed pint after pint in such quantities you would need to employ a team of cellarmen to support all the extra bar staff you'd need - and a SecuriCorps van to bank your takings.

This better class of customer was termed 'NewBreed' and we were promised he'd set the tills ringing as soon as we'd driven out the riff-raff. The advice was to steam-clean, fumigate and redecorate throughout replacing curtains and fabrics wherever possible. At all costs we must completely eradicate any evidence that society's scum had ever been there. The 'New Breed' of customer wouldn't like that.

So we built a few half-open cattle sheds in our pubs' back yards and banished the most loyal, better spending half of our customers out into the cold and rain expecting them to be grateful. After all the stats did say most smokers secretly wanted to quit and really we'd be doing 'em a favour!

Of course NewBreed was merely a clever figment of the anti-smoking lobby's imagination, but even savvy pubco bosses bought it hook, line and sinker. Strong objections from organisations such as CAMRA evaporated in a wave of hysteric euphoria as it seemed everyone 'embraced' the new age of endless prosperity to come.

From the day of the ban's inception pubs immediately began to shed customers, and haven't yet plugged the leak. We forgot that pubs were built by the pennies of the common man, yet we tried to move upmarket in a vain attempt to satisfy a demand that never existed.

So far we've lost 8,000 - 10,000 pubs (the jury's still out on the exact figure) from a 2007 total pub stock of 56,000. Many more are skating on the edge of insolvency, just hanging on. I estimate that sometime in 2013 we'll pass the 25% mark and we'll likely see half of our pubs gone by 2017.

Even those pubs that survive often aren't 'pubs' anymore, not as we know them. They've become dining halls no longer catering for the drinking classes. Here in the Midland huge numbers have been snapped up to reopen as Indian restaurants - although technically they are still 'pubs'.

Those, like myself, who tried desperately to warn of the carnage to come were dismissed as conspiracy theorists, doomsayers and nicotine addicts - but time has proved us right.

You may wonder why this industry remains in denial? Ask yourself, if you were a pubco director and you'd seen your share price plummet from £14 each to around 50p how would you explain your actions to your shareholders? Would you 'fess up and accept your part of the blame? Not likely.

The loudest voices on The Publican​'s forum crying out to keep the blanket ban in it's present form come from obvious smoke haters.

They'd have you believe theirs is the majority opinion although recent trade surveys clearly show 4 out of every 5 publicans want the law amending to allow separate, ventilated indoor smoking rooms.

But when they genuinely are publicans so firmly opposed to their fellow publicans' CHOICE of introducing an indoor smoking room you will generally find they have well positioned pubs in fairly affluent areas less affected by the ban, or even benefiting from it as less fortunate pubs close down. That's why they're in the minority by four-to-one against.

Hence you should ask this simple question. If they truly believe what they say, that this pub holocaust has little or nothing to do with the smoking ban, what possible objection could they have?

After all, if they genuinely believe the ban made no difference to trade they must also believe the reinstatement of an indoor smoking room would similarly not advantage their competitors.

The truth is they KNOW beyond any shadow of a doubt that their customers would simply migrate overnight to any neighbouring pub that offered a smoking room. They're terrified of choice in case it hits their takings but you can guarantee one thing. If the law actually were to be amended and choice restored they'd be the first ones rushing to put the ashtrays back out.

If the ban had been good for pubs then I'd have backed it from the beginning. My one aim is to help save as many pubs as possible, it's the only reason I campaign for more fairness. OTOH they are only interested in the future of one pub - their own.

There never was any demand for non-smoking pubs so the industry will never find it possible to replace it's dwindling customer base. Nor is there sufficient demand to support 40-odd thousand food-led pubs. It's market forces, plain as.

So with the trade not even campaigning for any amendment to the law we'll see our once-great pub culture wither and die over the next 10 years. At best we'll be left with a few chains of managed, town-centre food pubs-come-coffee-houses, basically Wetherspoon-clones, totaling around 12,000 in all.

Sure we'll attempt to rebuild and one day in the distant future new pubs will again be built and old one's converted back from flats, shops and Indian restaurants. But they'll just be bars and food halls, a mere parody of what once was, like those 'English Pubs' that litter the streets of Benedorm.

We'll never recapture that quintessential time-honoured character that made British pubs unique - the envy of the world. Much of that's already gone, ever since we threw open our doors to the forces of political correctness. We lost something very special the day when we allowed the State behind the bar. It's one reason why the customers have been drifting away.

Countless previous generations have cherished this trade before handing it safely down to the

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