Closure of 11,000 pubs ‘fails to tell true story of how pub trade is performing’

Turnover of pubs and bars, UK, 2001 to 2006, ONS

Large pub chains are consolidating their businesses around bigger bars at the expense of small pubs, new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal.

The closure of British pubs is a well-known tale, but the latest data reveals just how sharp the decline has been, with more than 11,000 pubs closing in the last decade, a fall of 23%.

There were around 50,000 pubs trading in 2008, but that number is now down to around 39,000. It means that almost one in four pubs have closed in the past 10 years.

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The ONS said, however, that the figures don’t tell the full story of how the UK pub trade is doing.

Although thousands of pubs have shut, 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, and employment figures back this theory up. While the number of jobs in pubs dipped during the economic downturn, there are now 6% more jobs in pubs and bars than there were in 2008.

The largest increases have been in bigger pubs (those with 10 or more employees). This may be because pubs are increasingly focussed on serving food as well as drink, which requires more waiting and kitchen staff.

In 2008, pubs in the UK had a median number of five employees. By 2018, partly due to the closure of many smaller pubs, this had increased to eight employees.

The rise in employment has been more pronounced in rural pubs, where in 2018 total employment in England and Wales is up 17% compared with 2008.

In contrast, total employment in urban pubs rose by only 4% over the same period.

Many areas on the edges of big cities, and in the commuter belt, have seen the biggest declines in the number of pubs.

Barking and Dagenham, Newham and Luton – all in and around London – now have fewer than half the pubs they did in 2001.

Likewise, there are far fewer pubs in some areas around Manchester, including Burnley, Bolton and Rochdale, as well as on the outskirts of Birmingham, in areas including Sandwell, Dudley and Walsall.

In Wales, Torfaen, near Newport, was the area to have lost the most pubs. In Scotland, East Renfewshire and East Ayrshire, both south of Glasgow, saw pub numbers decline the most.

All areas of Northern Ireland have seen pubs close their doors, with numbers down by more than a third between 2001 and 2018.

The areas where pub numbers have held up – or even increased – include several popular tourist areas, such as Highland Scotland, Ceredigion in West Wales, and South Lakeland, as well as many seaside towns like Scarborough, Blackpool and Brighton.

Pub numbers also remained stable in some cities, including Newcastle, Milton Keynes, York, and in the London borough of Hackney.

Most pubs in the UK are small, independently owned businesses – and it is mainly these kinds of pub that have closed over the last decade. But the number of independently-owned larger pubs is steadily rising.

Meanwhile, small pub chains, which are often regional, family-owned businesses, have also switched their focus away from small pubs towards medium and large bars.

And at the same time, the large “pubcos” (nationwide companies with 250 or more outlets) have almost completely abandoned small pubs, disposing of lots of them in the early 2000s, concentrating instead on their bigger bars.


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Andrew Seymour

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