Thirty-one pubs are closing across Britain each week, according to new data from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
It marks an increase from December's stats which showed that 28 pubs were closing per week. The new figures show that 3% of Britain's suburban pubs have closed over the past six months. In mainland Britain, London and the southeast are hardest hit, losing 8.4 pubs over the course of an average week.
The demise of the British high street has been well-documented, but the trend has been ever so slightly bucked over the past year. The most recent statistics from PwC and the Local Data Company showed that in the first half of 2013, town centre shops closed at a rate of 18 per day, down from 20 in the corresponding period in 2012.
In December 2013, shop vacancies fell below 14% for the first time since 2010. The figures on British pubs, then, come as something of a surprise, particularly when research firm Mintel found that the nation's pubs actually enjoyed a revenue increase of 2.8% in 2013, to £22.15bn.
While Mintel expects the pubs that are staying open to keep making more money for the foreseeable future, the closures show no sign of letting up.
So why exactly are Britain's pubs calling last orders at such an alarming rate?
CAMRA has laid the blame squarely at the feet of "weak planning law" in England and Wales, which allows property developers to convert pubs into shops, financial institutions, cafes/restaurants or temporary business premises – or even to demolish them – without planning permission.
The result, CAMRA's head of communication Tom Stainer told the Morning Advertiser, is that "popular and profitable pubs are being left vulnerable by gaps in English planning legislation as pubs are being increasingly targeted by those wishing to take advantage of the absence of proper planning control".
It is wrong, said Stainer, when communities are left without a local pub because it's been bulldozed and turned "into a Tesco store".
A conversation with his counterpart at the Association of Convenient Stores (ACS) Chris Noice would seem to confirm that this trend exists. Over the past year, there have been 16 convenience stores (those with under 3,000 square feet in floor space, which includes most smaller outlets of Tesco, Sainsbury's, etc) added each week across Britain.
"People's habits are changing," Noice tells IBTimes UK. "There are more single person households and fewer people plan their meals in advance."
CAMRA is calling on the government to change the planning laws to ensure that planning permission is always required before a pub is demolished or converted for alternative use. But is it conceivable that the only reason Britain's pubs are closing in their droves is weak planning law?
Glass Half Empty
Martin Caffrey is the operations director of the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations (FLVA), the membership body for self-employed licensees. He thinks that a lot of pubs close because the owners haven't done their homework.
The romantic idea of running a pub isn't a new one. For many years, it was the go-to option for retiring sportspeople, while it's common to hear people speak wistfully of moving to the country, to start a second career of running the local pub.
"This is not an industry to retire into," Caffrey says. "It's hard graft. They [pub owners] must have a proper business plan and work to it. Gone are the days when you could open the doors and make a profit automatically. You have to be a proper operator."
Often people don their rose-tinted glasses before becoming publicans, entering into it without having conducted sufficient research and without a legitimate business plan.
"If you look at a closed pub, you have to ask whether punters are going to come back to it. If it's had five licensees in two years, is it going to get back to its peak right away? No, it probably isn't," he says.
The solution? The FLVA is calling for an industry-wide framework to come into practice. Currently, there's a voluntary code that offers pre-entry awareness training. This should be compulsory. It's only in the "tied industry", where the publican is tied to a brewery or a pub company, that a balance sheet needs to be signed off by an accountant. This should also be compulsory, Caffery says.
Broadening Pub Culture
But the reality is, Britain's pub culture has changed markedly since the days when a pint of bitter and a packet of pork scratchings was enough to satiate the masses.
"The standard model of a drinking house is rapidly changing. If you take the high streets, they're open from breakfast time. You have to have a working business plan, you have to milk the property. You must maximise the use of the business," Caffrey says.
If pubs don't adapt to this shift in consumer demand, they'll fall on hard times. Few establishments have grasped the concept more than The Book Club in East London.
In the morning, it's the brunch venue of choice for Old Street's start-up collectives, hunched deep in conversation over their Eggs Benedict and MacBook Pros. Following a roaring lunch trade, weekday evenings can be spent at table tennis tournaments, speed-dating or film nights, while it turns into a popular club venue at the weekends. During the week, it opens its doors at 8am and over the weekend, commonly keeps them open until 2am.
"We don't open 24 hours but sometimes it comes close," says Andy Maddocks, operations director for the managing Mothership Group, which also runs the nearby Queen of Hoxton and Stories Bar.
The Book Club isn't a pub in the traditional sense and a landlord in rural Norfolk won't have the same captive market of weekday revellers than one in Shoreditch, but his advice should be transposable for any pub in Britain: engage with the customer, give them what they want and entertain them.
"It's about doing something that many local pubs have done for years and still do: engaging with the community. Putting on events that interest them is a really good way of keeping your place busy. The days when you could sit back and make your booze as cheap as possible are over. People need a reason to go somewhere. What reason can you give them to spend time in your bar or establishment?" Maddocks tells IBTimes UK.
There are, of course, many other issues – not least the growing trend of drinking at home, at the expense of the pub (Martin Caffrey calls for a 50p minimum charge per unit of alcohol sold in shops).
Rather than romanticised ideals, though, the most successful pubs, as with the most successful butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, are those that are run as good businesses, in tune with their target market.
CAMRA's latest campaign to change planning laws, if nothing else, highlights the difficulties pubs face in staying around in 2014. By keeping in touch with a changing consumer market, publicans can give themselves as much chance of survival as possible.