Bringing the pub back from the brink

By Andy Myring, 14 July 2022 | 8 mins read

There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.
Samuel Johnson, 1776

Recent estimates suggest that the UK’s food and beverage industry lost at least £25.66 billion due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local pubs suffered most, with almost 2,500 forced to close their doors forever in 2020. Prior to that, some 914 pubs disappeared in 2018 and a further 473 in 2019. The industry’s periodical, “The Caterer” magazine suggests that 400 more closed in 2021 at a staggering rate of 37 per month.

In May 2021, this decline prompted financial experts, Company Debt, to call on UK punters to prop up the nation’s watering holes by sinking 124 pints each to cover the pandemic shortfalls when the pub doors finally creaked open. (For tee-totallers, the target is a whopping 976 packets of crisps or 40 roast dinners each to help pubs to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.) It’s a case of desperate measures for desperate times. The Government’s closure of pubs was unprecedented – even during the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish Flu and the Blitz, pubs stayed open.

It’s not just Covid’s fault

However, it seems that Covid has only accelerated a trend that’s been gathering pace for decades. Over the last 40 years, the number of British pubs has fallen from 65,000 to fewer than 50,000. The blame can be placed at many doors: the smoking ban, cheap supermarket booze, people drinking less and beer duty, which at an extra 52p a pint, is higher than the rest of Europe’s. However, it’s shrewd developers – who have spotted the value of pub real estate – that have perhaps done the most damage.

As increasing numbers of locals are demolished or converted to other uses, here’s a simple and heartfelt case for pubs and place. Where there’s a pub, there’s a community. After years of decline and lockdown measures, the inn’s role as a cornerstone of community life is under threat.

In 1912, Hilaire Belloc advised: “change your hearts or you will lose your inns and you will deserve to have lost them”. Should this scenario play out, Belloc envisions a tragedy: “you will have lost the last of England”.

Does losing the pub, lose the community?

Belloc clearly agreed with those who say that pubs form an integral part of social infrastructure, bringing the community together. Their presence is particularly meaningful in rural towns and villages. Leading independent think tank, Localis, agrees, citing the power of pubs to help build a sense of community cohesion. Localis argues that for many people, a visit to their local pub serves as an occasion to leave their house and socialise with neighbours and friends, helping prevent social isolation and loneliness. For this reason, the absence of rural pubs could jeopardise the social fabric of many communities. The closure of country pubs greatly hinders the ability for social interaction and harms community initiatives taking place at the local level. An increasing number of groups have drawn attention to this issue, including the Countryside Alliance, which has been active in highlighting the importance of pubs in rural communities across the UK.

Localis goes on to say that “Pubs and other civic spaces are part of the scaffolding that helps create a strong community identity. They are vital third spaces that need to be protected and grown. The role that they play as key social infrastructure in place that contribute to the fabric of civic life demonstrates their importance as community anchors. Particularly in rural England, the pub’s central role in civic life is of great importance.”

Research carried out by Local Trust goes even further. The place-based funding organisation states that “a lack of places to meet (community centres, pubs, or villages) … make[s] a significant difference to social and economic outcomes for deprived communities. Areas of deprivation that lack these community assets have higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and poor health than others, leading to them being ‘left behind’.” Losing pubs means losing the glue that binds communities together, keeping them strong.

An integral part to economic growth

The loss of pubs may also mean the loss of one of the biggest contributors to the UK economy. A 2020 report by Oxford Economics (UK Beer & Pub Sector) claims that pubs support some 884,860 jobs across the UK, providing £12.1 billion of wages and £23.4 billion of Gross Added Value (GVA). Meanwhile, 43% of jobs in the hospitality sector are taken by young adults under the age of 25 years of age – those most vulnerable to job losses that may arise from the permanent closure of pubs. Figures like these suggest that the pub and wider hospitality sector will be critical to medium and long-term economic recovery.

And let’s not forget the impact that the loss of public houses has on our national culture and psyche. As Clare Foges, The Times Columnist, journalist and Government speechwriter, comments: “It is not just hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake here, or the billions of pounds contributed to GDP. The plight of pubs feels important because as well as an industry, pubs are part of our identity… Absurd as it may sound, being able to find a neighbourhood pub feels to me like something close to a birth right as a British citizen. If the AA is the fourth emergency service then, for many of us, pubs are the fifth…”

Rethinking the pub experience

If the value of pubs cannot be underestimated, neither can landlords’ creativity when it comes to the fight for survival. Some pubs are serving non-geographical communities brought together by shared interests: footfall fans, LGBTQ+ groups, vegans, theatre-lovers and pet owners, for example. Others are adding to the long tradition of pub theatres and live music, now that lockdowns are over. And that’s just the start. You can now attend parent-and-baby lectures for new parents, life drawing classes, parent-and-baby cinema, and yoga sessions in pubs. Glass blowing and knitting sessions are amongst the more imaginative offerings, together with libraries and computer literacy courses. During the pandemic, some pubs even advertised themselves as flexible office spaces, so isolated remote workers could benefit from a social atmosphere and a change of scenery.

Such services, events and entertainment represent ways to ensure viability, but also to bring people together. That’s important. A 2016 survey by Opinion Matters found that one in five adults in relationships met their partners in pubs. Nearly a third said that their local pub was a good venue for a first date.

Bearing all this in mind, there’s a significant school of thought that the Government should support pubs by reducing the tax burden on the sector, to aid both recovery from pandemic losses and to build future resilience.

Suggestions have included permanently reducing VAT on all drinks and food sales within pubs, freezing beer duty and finding long-term and sustainable solutions to business rate reform.

Pub owners are probably wise not to hold their breath. Instead, they should seize the opportunity to rethink the retailing proposition of pubs as vital parts of both the urban high street and rural heart of communities. For too long, pub refurbishment and design has focused on cosmetic changes, rather than design strategy: how people want to use pubs and how they can be an integral part of their community.

Smart pub brands will be thinking about not just this moment of panic, but their longer-term positioning and the potential white space that comes with such a massive shift in the way consumers live their lives.

We are already seeing this on the high street: shopping centres re-imagined as “local social spaces”; former department stores reflecting consumer needs with “clusters of services”; and new independent retailers offering fresh perspectives and products.

Pubs have an opportunity to become pillars of stability in an unstable world by offering realness and intimacy to consumers. Humanity and empathy will become the benchmarks by which brands are judged, rather than the old ideas of perfection and brands ‘knowing what’s best’.

A look at how it can work

In 2020, Mavis (the experiential design arm to The Maverick Group) tackled this issue directly for Greene King, partnering with fellow designers, Bedrock Design. Our brief was to help the UK’s largest brewer and pub retailer to transform its Farmhouse Inns offer – and that meant re-evaluating the entire guest journey. To re-engage lapsed guests and win new fans (particularly in the core family segment), we examined and fixed pain points, for example, reducing queues and improving customer flow.

We also created ‘moments of magic’ – real WOW! factor elements that gave people a reason to visit. Meanwhile, we ‘dialled up’ the FARMHOUSE aesthetic and personality; steering the brand in a fresh direction, following our brand audit, critique and initial sketch designs. This included enhancing the building exteriors, interiors and staff uniform options. We also included two children’s play areas in the design, both externally and within the restaurant, with more natural and sympathetic materials.

Now is the time to consider the importance of pubs and how their future can be secured. We need to re-imagine them – because Samuel Johnson was right. Want to chat to us about how we could help? Get in touch…