Debate

Great British Pub Debate: Are traditional pubs losing relevance?

By Matthew Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

Great British Pub Debate: Are traditional pubs losing relevance?
According to the latest figures from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), 21 pubs are closing in the UK every week. But are these closures also a sign that the UK’s traditional pub culture is gradually being dismantled? And is the increasing prevalence of café-bars, coffee houses, gastropubs and a growing ‘drink-at-home’ attitude among the public the root cause?

The answer is yes, at least according to Dan Murray of online lifestyle magazine leeds-list.com, and Anja Madhvani of Northern Monk Brewing Co, who proposed and seconded this motion respectively at the first inaugural Great British Pub Debate.

The topic of the debate, organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers at the old courtroom at Leeds Town Hall, certainly ignited interest, with around 50 people attending.

The audience included plenty of guild representation as well as wider industry representation and attendance by pro-pub MP Greg Mulholland.

Eclectic mix of drinking houses

Leeds felt like the ideal location in which to host the debate, which was chaired by former MP and All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group chair John Grogan.

Outside the old courtroom, the halls and corridors of Leeds Town Hall were crackling with the energy of the annual Leeds International Beer Festival.

Some of the UK’s most exciting breweries had set up their stands for the four-day event, with a great range of both cask and keg beer on offer.

There certainly didn’t seem to be a lack of interest from the public either, as hundreds of drinkers filled the town hall to try everything from pints of local best bitter to samples of oak-aged Belgian beers.

Healthy pub culture

The city is also home to what feels like a very healthy pub culture. The centre is brimming with bars that range from the very traditional, such as Whitelock’s Ale House, to the very modern such as North Bar, and a pair of bars owned by BrewDog.

None of these businesses appear to be struggling. One outlet, Friends of Ham, is reportedly looking to open a second location within the city centre and another, Bundobust, is just a couple of months away from opening its second venue, in Manchester.

While Leeds city centre might seem robust as far as beer scenes go, it may not be the best case study for the UK at large, with large parts of the on-trade struggling to motivate consumers to get off the sofa and visit the pub.

Less relevant?

Murray kick-started the debate by proposing the motion: “This house believes that coffee shops, café-bars, restaurant chains and take-aways are making the traditional pub less relevant.” His belief is that Leeds is a great case study of why so-called ‘traditional’ pubs are becoming less relevant, arguing that new generations of drinkers are seeking new environments and experiences, and that the time of the pub is coming to an end.

Madhvani of Northern Monk Brewing Co seconded the motion. The craft brewery operates in a Grade II-listed former flax store, a short walk from Leeds city centre.

Madhvani co-manages the building that houses the brewery, which involves running an events space and tap room known as the Refectory – for all intents and purposes, a modern interpretation of a pub.

“I believe pub culture is under threat for a number of reasons,” Madhvani said after the debate.

“The average consumer is now better travelled, better connected and more clued-up on the products available to them, so it’s no surprise that people are now demanding more from their drinking and dining experiences.”

While she was there to back up Murray’s proposal, Madhvani’s approach to the debate was more open, citing that perhaps pub culture isn’t under threat of extinction but that it is undergoing a rapid period of change.

Do pubs need saving?

“I’m not certain traditional pubs needs ‘saving’,” she continues. “However, I do think there are measures we can take to ensure that pubs can flourish.”
The motion was opposed by one of CAMRA’s most long-standing and active members, Andy Shaw, who believes the role of a traditional pub is not in decline.

"The definition of a community pub is clearly changing, and has evolved over time to reflect changes in the industry,” Shaw said during his address at the old courtroom.

His statement concluded that pubs are not merely venues to enjoy food and drink but are also key sources of entertainment and a foundation of community life. A sentiment that was easy for the room to agree with.

An evolving culture

Shaw referenced some research undertaken by Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford on behalf of CAMRA. Dunbar’s findings revealed that a third of the UK population above the legal drinking age preferred to socialise in pubs and regarded them as “safe spaces”.

However, that is still a minority. Imogen Bennett, manager of Leeds pub the Fox & Newt, believes this could be because the younger generation can find pubs to be intimidating spaces. 

She said: “We can’t let the pub become less significant than any other place or form of drinking just for the sake of progress. Thankfully, the word ‘pub’ now refers to more than just old-fashioned, real-ale venues. It’s a place where younger drinkers can go without feeling intimidated or pressured to go for style over substance.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Shaw’s opposition was that modern coffee shops and café-bars, initially deemed a threat, could instead be a sign that Britain’s pub culture is as healthy as ever.

It’s just that culture is evolving to meet the demands of a different generation of consumer.

“Due to the pressures of modern life… pubs are more relevant than they have ever been” was how Shaw carefully closed his statement, a point that neither the proposing nor the opposing side could disagree with.

Promotion

After the debate closed, the discussion was handed over to the floor for questions and comments. Northern Monk’s Madhvani bravely raised the key point that traditional pubs don’t do enough to promote themselves beyond the demographic of white males, and that modern venues are doing more to promote diversity within their consumer base.

This statement earned an enthusiastic round of applause from the crowd. Bennett added to this by stating: “City-centre pubs just don’t know how to cater for often shy and nervous younger drinkers. Pubs need to make these people feel welcome.”

Another consensus from the audience was that the hospitality industry is not appealing enough to young people as a career.

It was agreed that a great deal more needs to be done to make the pub trade look more attractive as a career, and to encourage a far greater sense of entrepreneurialism in those who do choose this path.

The motion was defeated by a slim margin of 56% to 44%. Ideas on how to protect and nurture pub culture included the provision of better training offered at a grassroots level and a greater focus on quality at all levels of the industry.

The ‘right people’ were in attendance there to listen – it’s now surely up to them to transform these collective thoughts into actions.

Discussion point

Guild spokeswoman Frances Brace said: “The Great British Pub Debate was designed to give voice to excellent traditional pubs as well as to amazing hybrid venues, and the proposers and seconders for both sides were brilliant. What the debate made clear is that it’s not simply a case of traditional pubs failing and hybrid venues thriving.”

It remains to be seen if the debate will have any effect on the continued closure of many of the UK’s traditional pubs. But an important discussion has been started and now it’s time for action instead of just words.

■ Matthew Curtis is an award-winning freelance beer writer and a committee member of the British Guild of Beer Writers

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