The End of the Road for the Pub?

How would a cut in the drink-drive limit really affect pubs?

Saving Pubs or Saving Lives?
Real People in Real Pubs
Rural Areas Most at Risk
Urban Areas Would Suffer Too
How Many Pubs Would Close?
Case Studies

Saving Pubs or Saving Lives?

"When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves,
For you will have lost the last of England." .....Hilaire Belloc

There are two sides to the debate about reducing the drink-drive limit - one is the effect it would have on road casualties, the other is the impact it would have on pubs. Now clearly, if it would save hundreds of lives a year while only leading to the closure of a handful of pubs, it would have to be right to do it. On the other hand, if it would only have a negligible effect on accidents while decimating the country's pubs, then you would have to think long and hard about it.

It is not a simple matter of saying that "anything that saves lives must be right" - even if a limit cut really would save lives, which is highly debatable. To take an extreme example, imposing a blanket 20 mph limit on all roads in Britain would undoubtedly bring about a huge fall in road deaths, even if often not complied with. However, it would put such a drag on the economy and increase delivery costs so much that the consequences in terms of poverty and unemployment would not be thought worth the benefit, and indirectly could lead to more deaths, not less.

In the government's original consultation document about reducing the drink-drive limit, published in early 1998, they made no mention of the potential effect on pubs, and indeed made the fatuous statement that "there will be no compliance costs for members of the public from a lower limit." This was widely criticised, and many responses to the consultation mentioned the effect that a lower limit would have on pubs.

In the response to the consultation, published in April 2000, they did at least grudgingly accept this, and made reference to it, while casting doubt on the actual impact it would have:

6. The consultation response shows up very clearly the concerns of two overlapping interests about a lower limit: those of the alcohol industries and those of rural communities generally, both being concerned primarily about the viability of rural pubs if a lower limit is adopted and properly enforced. 65 respondents commented on this effect (most, though not all, of these were opposed to a lower limit). Pubs and hotels can be a locally significant source of employment, and those in rural areas are particularly dependent on access by car. It is uncertain nevertheless how many are critically dependent on customers who expect to drink 3-4 units of alcohol and drive home afterwards and would be disinclined to visit the premises at all if they could not legally do this.

This gives the impression that the document has been written by some London-based sophisticate who has little idea how pubs really function outside major urban centres.

Real People in Real Pubs

To anyone who knows pubs, it is obvious that the range of people who will potentially be affected goes much wider than that narrowly-drawn definition. The effect of drinking on blood-alcohol levels is notoriously unpredictable, and there is also a certain amount of leeway in the commonly-accepted wisdom that the 80 mg limit is equivalent to two pints. So in practice there are many drivers visiting pubs who sometimes drink five or six units of alcohol, but believe that they are still staying within the limit. They may or may not be correct in that belief, but it is the belief that matters. On the other hand, there may be some who are ultra-cautious and limit themselves to one pint, and therefore following a reduction in the limit might decide to cut down further or abstain from alcohol entirely.

Undoubtedly, most of the people who feel they might fall foul of the law following a limit reduction would change their behaviour in some way. Some drinking drivers could indeed be "disinclined to visit the premises at all" following a limit reduction. But others, who are maybe eating a meal or meeting friends, might well continue to go there but drink less, which would still have a negative impact on the pub's revenue. Even the hard-core drink-drivers who are prepared to exceed the current limit by a wide margin could cut down or visit pubs less often, because their activities would be more obvious, and their more responsible and abstemious friends might have stopped going too.

The impact on the business of individual pubs would obviously vary considerably, but, however you look at, it the overall effect on the pub trade points in only one way, and that is downwards. On a narrow interpretation, most rural pubs are probably not "critically dependent" on law-abiding drinking drivers, but equally most draw a significant proportion of their trade from that source. Rural pubs are struggling and closing even today, and even a five per cent fall in custom would push a lot more over the edge.

If the government are to return to the subject in the future, they should commission detailed research to determine exactly what the effect will be on pubs. And licensees who are deprived of their livelihood by a reduction in the limit should surely be entitled to compensation - as handgun owners and dealers were when handguns were banned in the wake of the Dunblane massacre.

Rural Areas Most At Risk

Obviously, the greatest effect would be felt in rural areas where fewer people live within walking distance of a pub, and public transport is limited or non-existent. For their submission to the government's consultation, the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association (BLRA) carried out an analysis of the areas of the country likely to be hardest hit by a limit reduction. These were areas where there was:

  • a low adult population per pub,
  • a higher than average percentage of small pubs (with rateable values of less than 7,500),
  • the greatest distance between existing pubs.

The "Top Ten" they identified were:

  1. Rural Wales (north of the Swansea-Cardiff coastal region)
  2. Cumbria
  3. Lincolnshire
  4. Shropshire
  5. Somerset
  6. Northumberland
  7. North Yorkshire
  8. Hereford & Worcester
  9. Suffolk
  10. Wiltshire
It is also likely that there would be similar effects in other large rural counties such as Norfolk and Devon that just fall outside this list.

Interestingly, the research also showed that 60% of the people who visit a pub once a month did so by car (26% driving, 34% passengers). Overall, 58% of pub visits are made over distances of more than one mile, and it is those aged over 55 who drive the furthest.

Urban Areas Would Suffer Too

It should not be assumed that urban areas such as Greater Manchester and Merseyside would be completely unaffected. Within these areas, a lot of people travel to pubs by car, and there are many suburban pubs where over half the customers arrive by car. Much the same considerations are likely to apply here - some pubgoing drivers might choose to switch to public transport, or walk to a different pub, but equally others would visit the same pub and drink less, or not bother going to the pub at all.

The effect probably would not be sufficient to make any individual pub completely unviable, but it could lead to an overall decline in trade outside town and city centres of five or ten percent, which in the long run would reduce the demand for pubs and lead to a thinning-out of their numbers. Indeed this has been seen already on the fringes particularly of London but also of other big cities where a substantial number of big 1930s roadhouses have closed, to be converted into drive-thru McDonalds or new housing. A factor in this must be that fewer people are willing to drive to these pubs, and if they are going to use public transport to go out drinking they are more likely to head for a town or city-centre "circuit".

There is also likely to be, across the whole spectrum of pubs, a small but noticeable effect in people drinking less during the evenings because of fears of still being over the limit the following morning, which could even lead them on occasions to choose to do something else entirely rather than going to the pub.

How Many Pubs Would Close?

So what would the impact be in real terms? There are approximately 60,000 pubs in the UK today. As a broad assumption, probably one-fifth, or 12,000, are pretty much entirely dependent on car-borne trade, because they have few nearby houses and no realistic public transport connections. Another fifth have a majority of car-borne customers but do have other significant sources of trade. The remaining 60% are in heavily populated or city-centre areas where car trade is a minority or completely irrelevant. From observation, I would say that a considerable majority of drivers visiting pubs will have at least one alcoholic drink, and at least half of them enough to put them in the 50 - 80 mg range. And, as outlined above, most pubgoers in that category will change their behaviour, either by drinking less or not visiting the pub at all. So we are looking at a substantial proportion of the customers of around 25,000 pubs.

Now, many of those pubs will have other sources of custom, but overall the decline in trade could easily amount to 20% or more. Probably, after a limit cut, a couple of thousand pubs would close within a few months, either because they were easily saleable for other uses, or their trade had fallen off a cliff and they had clearly become unviable. Others would carry on and see how things went, but every time they changed hands or came up for review, the factors that are working against country pubs today would be considered ever more closely. There would also be a considerable reduction in the flow of new entrants to the trade that currently sustains many marginal pubs, as it became clear that rural pubs were up against it.

It would not be an overnight effect, but the attrition in the numbers of out-of-town pubs would continue and intensify, and over time would probably bite very deep. But it would happen slowly, and generally to the quietest, lowest-profile, least appealing pubs, and it might pass largely unnoticed, as the current steady drip-feed of pub closures is doing, until people suddenly woke up and realised that half the rural pubs in the country had gone.

There might even in some areas be an effect similar to that we have seen in inner cities, where a number of pubs hang on in the face of an overall decline in trade, compete with each other in an increasingly destructive way, and then suddenly most of them give up the unequal struggle and close within a short period of time. This could lead to a total devastation of the pub stock in some areas of the countryside.

Twenty years after a limit cut, we could well have a pub landscape where the total number had fallen from 60,000 to around 45,000. The bar scene in city centres would still be thriving, but outside these areas the traditional small or medium sized pub with a predominantly wet trade would have completely disappeared. There would of course still be a demand for pubs in suburban and rural areas, but those that survived would tend to be the larger ones with a strong emphasis on food and offering other facilities such as function suites and accommodation. An entirely new category of outlet could evolve, which would be predominantly an informal, family-friendly restaurant that incidentally happened to be licensed and had a small, pseudo-traditional bar area. New-build pubs in the Brewer's Fayre and similar chains are clear pointers in this direction.

June 2012: Perhaps ironically, the number of pubs in the UK has already fallen to little more than 50,000, which is not much above what I forecast above. The key factor in this has been the smoking ban, introduced in England from 1 July 2007, which is something I never envisaged when I originally created this website. This has had a much greater impact on urban than rural pubs, although undoubtedly it has picked off some of the potential out-of-town victims of a reduction in the drink-drive limit. In general, suburban and rural pubs have been less vulnerable as they have more food trade, although there have been some notable casualties.

Case Studies

The following are case studies of four pubs in Cheshire that are reasonably well known to me. They are all within two miles of each other, and are fairly near to three sizeable towns, not in the deep countryside. I have deliberately not named them as they are meant to be general examples representative of many other pubs. I also would not want mischievous people to draw the inference that these particular pubs are well-used by over-the-limit drivers, which I don't believe they are.

Pub 1 is about five miles from the nearest large town. It stands on an unclassified road, about half a mile from a trunk road. There are only a few scattered houses within walking distance, and no public transport past the door. Presumably in the past the road was of greater importance than it is now, and the pub is a substantial late Victorian or Edwardian redbrick building with a number of outbuildings. Money has been spent on the pub in the 1970s or 1980s to remove walls and install a new bar counter and seating, but it now looks a little shabby and down-at-heel. Food is available, but it is ordinary and the pub does not draw a lot of dining customers from nearby towns. Probably well over 90% of customers arrive by car. This pub even now is obviously struggling and in decline. It is extremely difficult to see it surviving very long after a limit reduction.
February 2005: This pub is now closed and boarded, and I would be very surprised to see it reopen. Another casualty of people's increasing reluctance, irrespective of the drink-drive limit, to drive to non-urban pubs unless going out for a meal. The pub was later converted to a private house.

Pub 2 is on an A-class road in a small village, very close to a motorway junction, and about three miles from the nearest large town. The scattered village only has maybe a couple of hundred people within walking distance of the pub, and while there is new housing, it is on the other side of the motorway where there is a nearer pub. There is an infrequent bus service past the door that does not run during the evenings. It is a small, appealing cottage-style pub with an opened-out main bar area, but retaining an attractive small snug. Significantly, there are no kitchen facilities for hot food. There is sufficient trade, mainly from older regulars, to keep the pub ticking over. A few walk from nearby houses, but the great majority arrive by car. Again it is hard to see the long-term survival of this pub, although it is better placed than Pub 1, on a main road with some houses nearby. There might be an opportunity to build up a food trade, but it is small with limited room for expansion, and has no established reputation. There are also three large chain dining pubs within half a mile. It could be attractive as a private house, although it is built right on to the main road.

Pub 3 is on a B-class road that runs between two trunk roads and follows an orbital course around the nearby large town. It is about three miles from the town, but is well secluded and feels further away. It stands in a small village with maybe a hundred houses including some new development. There may be a very irregular bus service. It is a very attractive country pub that has over the years expanded to occupy the whole of a row of old cottages. In recent years it has been extended to include a table-service restaurant and a small number of letting bedrooms. Food is also served in the bar areas which have changed little since being remodelled in the 1950s and have more character than almost any other nearby pubs. It is popular with visitors from the nearby towns. There is some trade from walkers and horse riders on Sunday lunchtimes, and from the village, but the vast majority of customers arrive by car. This pub has a much better chance of survival than the first two, as it is inherently appealing and has an established dining trade from surrounding towns. The well-used letting bedrooms are a further factor in its favour. It will probably need to concentrate even more on the food and accommodation side of the business, inevitably at some cost to the traditional pub character of the bar areas.

Pub 4 is on the same non-trunk A-class road as Pub 2, about a mile to the south, and four miles from the town, again with an infrequent daytime-only bus service. It stands at an isolated crossroads with few nearby houses except for a strip of 1930s ribbon development a couple of hundred yards to the north. It is an old pub, but was extended and remodelled in the 1970s to cater for an out-of-town dining trade. The only traditional part is a small public bar at the front. Twenty years ago it was the place to go locally for steak and chips. It still has quite a strong food trade, but there has been little investment recently, and it now belongs to a pub leasing company who will probably be reluctant to spend a lot of money on it. In recent years some of its trade must have been taken away by three chain dining pubs that have opened between it and the town (one a conversion of an old local, two entirely new). Effectively all the customers arrive by car. There are four pubs of broadly similar character on a six-mile stretch of this road, none of which has received major investment for some time. There will probably still be a market for two, and this is not the weakest of the four, but it will need a lot of money spending on it to re-establish a reputation as a dining pub. In cases like this it may well be a case of waiting for the other man to blink first, as the major brewers no longer own large estates of country pubs that they could attempt to cull in a "rational" manner. All of the four pubs mentioned here were originally owned by the same major brewery company.
March 2010: One of the four pubs referred to is now closed and boarded, although the other three, including the one in the case study, are still trading.

(Last updated June 2012)

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