Does the pub industry have a future?

The British pub industry is struggling because there are too many of them, writes Tom Bulford. Like bingo halls and bowler hats, will they also soon belong to a lost age?

The World Showcase at Disneyland's Epcot Amusement Park, where I was a fortnight ago, has permanent exhibitions of eleven countries ranging from the fairly obvious like China, Japan and the USA to less likely candidates, Morocco and Norway.

Each consists of a series of miniature buildings that represents the architecture of that country complete with some exhibitions, samples of the national cuisine and of course the inevitable souvenir shops.

Each, according to the blurb, offers fascinating glimpses of the unique culture of that land,' and is no doubt intended to attract tourists to the homeland. So what, you might be asking, can we glimpse of the fascinating culture of the United Kingdom which is indeed one of the eleven?

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America's UK

Well, we have cobble-stoned streets, Hampton Court Palace, Anne Hathaway's thatched cottage, and replica phone booths of the now almost extinct red sentry box variety. There is an English garden, a topiary, a maze and a gazebo.

And when one has exhausted oneself marveling at these wondrous things from across the pond' fish and chips are available from Harry Ramsden's, while steak and kidney pie or bangers and mash are served up at the Rose and Crown Dining Room. But the real attraction, and the thing that I gather makes this the most popular destination on the theme park is the bar at the Rose and Crown which is open at all hours serving Bass, Boddingtons, Harp Lager, Stella Artois and Guinness.

It is marketing efforts such as this that attract the Americans to littl' old Britain, and what they make of it when they finally find their way out of Heathrow Airport and overcome their shock at the price of petrol, I don't know.

Closing pubs

But to be really authentic Epcot's Rose and Crown should probably have a big screen showing live football featuring any two from Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, some vomiting and fornicating teenagers, and a For Sale' sign above the door. Because the pub industry is in trouble, and four pubs are apparently closing down each day.

I would date the decline back to the time when pub-goers decided that having eight pints and then driving home might not be such a great idea after all. Following on from that counter attractions such as late night shopping, a wider range of TV programs, and cheap supermarket booze took their toll on pub attendance.

Busy working Mums no longer take kindly to dishing up dinner at 5.30pm and then waving hubby off to the local. And then we started to get health and diet conscious. So pubs tried to change their ways.

The new pub

When I was younger and used to go the pub quite regularly the menu at my local consisted of either a cheese roll or a ham roll, food that was really designed to do no more than soak up the beer. Now no pub is complete without a full three course menu, and a bloke with a tall white hat in the kitchen.

The gastro-pub arrived, and men who really wanted to do no more than get their toes under the bar rail and swap dirty jokes were suddenly expected to make small talk to their wives over dinner.

The last straw was the smoking ban. Now pubs are disappearing fast and the question is, apart from the damage it might do to our reputation with visiting tourists who want to see ruddy cheeked publicans pulling pints of foaming ale while village life is discussed around the bar - should we care?

Why should we care if pubs are closing?

One man who certainly does care and since his livelihood depends upon it, one can hardly blame him - is Plymouth publican Chris Unwin.

'Behind the monarchy, the pub is one of the great things in this country. If you lose that, you lose everything.' That seems rather an extreme point of view, as is the view that it is all the fault of the government. Sure, the ever rising tax burden on alcohol and the smoking ban have not helped. But who can take issue with policies which are basically there to protect the public health?

The real reason that pubs are in decline is that most of us have better things to do. Whenever I go into a pub - and I admit this is rare the bar stools are occupied by raddled old soaks just waiting to fall into a passing ambulance and become a burden on the NHS. The food is predictable and overpriced. The atmosphere is dull. So being neither alcohol-dependent nor especially sociable, I just fail to see the attraction.

The costs of the pub

But aside from my own tastes and prejudices I just cannot see how anybody can make money out of running a pub. The cost of the building and its upkeep, the rates, the insurance, the staff wages and everything else must come to tens of thousands and I just fail to see how you can pull enough pints or sell enough ploughman's lunches to get it all back unless, that is, you can almost literally pour it down the neck of binge drinkers on a Friday night.

No, I am afraid the brutal truth is that pubs are struggling because there are too many of them, and because not enough people want to spend their evenings in them. They will not go into extinction. But like bingo halls, bowler hats, pigeon racing and dirty week-ends in Brighton they seem increasingly to belong to a lost age.

This article is taken from Tom Bulford's free daily email, Penny Sleuth'.

Tom worked as a fund manager in the City of London and in Hong Kong for over 20 years. As a director with Schroder Investment Management International he was responsible for £2 billion of foreign clients' money, and launched what became Argentina's largest mutual fund. Now working from his home in Oxfordshire, Tom Bulford helps private investors with his premium tipping newsletter, Red Hot Biotech Alert.

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