The decline of the British pub has been much lamented in the UK press recently, with statistics thrown about on the order of 36 pub closings each week. A British publican friend tells me, however, that he thinks those numbers are overblown and that it's the badly run ones that are closing — and then reopening a month later under new ownership. Whatever the reasons, the English pub is certainly in decline, with many reasons given for the current state of affairs.
"Tax hikes, combined with the ban on smoking in public places and supermarkets selling beer as a significant lost leader — to the extent that it is cheaper than bottled water — have all had a negative impact on a struggling industry.
"While pubs have served a historic role, off-trade has always existed alongside, providing consumer freedom of choice. However, economically, off-trade — thanks to the supermarkets — is now clearly a serious challenge with an annual turnover of about £13 billion almost matching pub sales. The Government must address these issues before further harm is done to the battered pub trade."
If American bars were closing at a similar rate, I doubt very much our government would lift a finger to do anything. But unlike on our side of the pond, the UK government actually seems to care what happens to English pubs. Some 400 MPs of all parties belong to the APPBG, with another 60 honorary MEP members. The APPBG is the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, and has been in existence for many years. It's somewhat similar to our recently formed Small Brewers Caucus (which boasts only 34 members). The chair of the group is John Grogan, a member of the Labour party. The APPBG's charter states the group's purpose is as follows.
More than 50 MPs have backed a Commons motion criticising supermarkets for selling alcohol cheaper than bottled water.
To promote the wholesomeness and enjoyment of beer and the unique role of the pub in UK society; to increase understanding of the social, cultural and historic role of brewing and pubs in the UK, and their value to tourism; to broaden recognition of the contribution of brewing and pubs to employment and to the UK's economy; to promote understanding of the social responsibility exercised by the brewing and pub industries; to support the UK's brewing industry worldwide, and to promote a positive future for beer and the pub.
Yesterday, the APPBG published the results of their Community Pub Inquiry, a two year study of pubs in the UK. Effectively, they discovered what everyone already knew; that "the ability of big stores to offer beer or lager for as little as 90p for four cans — while a pint in a pub often costs drinkers seven times as much — [is leading] to a decline of the pub as a social center where drinking [can] be controlled."
The panel is recommending that the UK government change the tax structure on alcohol, lowering it significantly for draught beer in order to protect the pub trade, which they characterized as "national icons." Taxes currently constitute at least a third of the price of a pint, giving supermarkets a big advantage because they can absorb the taxes in other high profit items they sell, using beer as a loss leader to get people into their stores.
Other suggestions the panel made included "legally enforceable minimum prices for beer," which many U.S. states have. In California, for example, it is illegal to sell beer at below cost precisely to avoid the problem the UK beer market is experiencing.
In the UK's Guardian newspaper, they elaborated on the panel's goals.
"This side of the pub trade has been largely overlooked in media coverage of licensing hours, law and order and binge drinking, and other problems more typically associated with large town centre pubs and bars... action taken in response to problems with perhaps 5 or 10% of the trade have caused further problems for the other 90 or 95%."
Nigel Evans, the Conservative MP for Ribble Valley and co-chair of the inquiry, said: "We cannot sit back and let these gems disappear. They are the heart of the community. It is where all community life in some rural areas takes place."
CAMRA, the Capaign for Real Ale, endorsed the study's findings and suggestions, adding.
A cut in tax on draught beer would reduce the price gap between pubs and supermarkets leading to more people enjoying a drink in the regulated environment of the community pub and not at home or in the street," said Camra chief executive Mike Benner.
"The report is a big step forward and has many positive suggestions for Government. I hope it will be the catalyst for a change in approach, which struggling community pubs so desperately need."
It's nice to see a government actually embrace the positive aspects of alcohol in people's lives instead of the incessant attacks we get here in the U.S. It's obviously a complicated issue and it's hard for me to say whether their recommendations have a chance of being implemented or not, or even if they are, whether they will do any good. But I certainly appreciate the effort, and more importantly that politicians can see pubs as more than something to simply demonize. I'd love to see some of our politicians be brave enough to do the same, but in our climate of zealotry and fanaticism, I imagine coming out in favor of alcohol, even the responsible kind, would be political suicide.