Times have never been tougher of pubs, especially those in rural and out-of-town-centre locations. [See On The Circuit in ALE 292.] The reasons why pub usage is declining are several. Our social habits are certainly changing; many more people nowadays prefer to consume their alcohol at home, partly because it's cheaper (thanks to the bizarre policies of recent governments, supermarkets and the "Calais run"), partly because the range of home entertainments has increased. When we do go out, we're drinking less. Sometimes this is for the best of reasons (driving) but other factors also apply: cost, health concerns and so on. The upshot is that the times when pubs could just open their doors and punters would flood in are long gone.
A positive consequence of all this is that pubs now have to try that bit harder to entice customers and, overall, standards have certainly improved. This is most noticeable in the area of pub food; compared with twenty years ago both quality and choice have improved out of all recognition. The downside here is that some pubs, particularly in the country, have become little more than licensed restaurants.
It's also true to say that pubs today are generally cleaner, smarter and more "female/family friendly". The grubby, smoke-stained, macho boozer is a genuine rarity now.
Nonetheless, pubs continue to close at an alarming rate, with the rural areas again bearing the brunt. Several villages in our area have lost their last pub in recent times - Little Abington, Lode (which had 3 pubs in 1979), Shippea Hill, Streetly End, Weston Colville - whilst the futures of the last pubs in Reach and Great Eversden hang in the balance. Many other villages are down to their last pub - Coton being the most recent following Greene King's closure of The John Barleycorn.
Country and suburban pubs can prosper however, given imagination, initiative and business nous on the part of those in charge. Food isn't the only solution. Other areas which can increase income include:
All of the above is for nothing however without the key ingredient: the right licensee. A good publican - one who is welcoming, skilful and enterprising - can make a success of any pub. Many potentially viable pubs have closed simply because they fell into the hands of people who were in some way incompetent. Rescuing a pub subsequently can be extremely difficult.
The message for customers as regards pubs is a simple one - use them or lose them. Time & time again we've seen "save our local" campaigns in villages where the licensee wails "if all the people protesting had used the pub regularly, it would never have got into trouble". "Why have they not been coming in?" is the real question for the licensee.
Pubs are great places and a unique part of our heritage but their future is in our hands.