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Where Are the British Pubs Going?

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.


In 1982, the UK had around 68,000 hubs. That number had fallen below 50,000 by 2015. The trend has slowed, but England had less than 48,000 pubs in 2018. What is happening to the British pub, what was once considered the center of its social life and a domestic institution?

Buildings like pubs with high roofs and large lots are attractive for redevelopment.

Buildings like pubs with high roofs and large lots are attractive for redevelopment.

Local Development

When the countryside is developed with single-family homes, people are more likely to drink at chain pubs or restaurants versus going to the local pubs where the locals drink.

In some towns, redevelopment affects the pub itself, where a pub in downtown gets turned into a disco. In London, the high value of real estate sees pubs replaced by apartments. Pubs are popular for redevelopment for condos and housing because they are big buildings, often attractive, on lots in highly walkable neighborhoods.

Population Loss in Many Areas

The world in the mid-2010s saw a major milestone—half of the world’s population lives in cities. This trend of people moving from the countryside to the city has been going on for the past several thousand years, but it accelerated with the Industrial Revolution. Public health improvements ended cities being death traps of disease while improving their wealth generation. The developing nations are seeing the rural percentage of the population drop as the urban share grows. In the developed world, most of the population already lives in large cities, a smaller fraction in small towns, fewer in villages.

Where does this leave Britain’s pubs? The villages have been emptying out for centuries, but the trend accelerated in the 1800s. World War 2 granted a reprieve, but unless the village is close to a modern suburb, the population of the average village is declining. A village of 500 might maintain two pubs, but when it has only 200 people, it struggles to maintain one. When the local economy and population both decline, the only pub in the village closes—and no one is likely to be able to open a new one even if things rebound. And with migration to the cities, the children of the original owner are very unlikely to take it over, though they may sell it to a developer.

Demographic Shifts

England has brought in a number of immigrants to offset its slightly below replacement level native-born birth rate. When there is a Muslim influx into a community, it doesn’t yield alcohol drinkers to support the local pub. Indians settling in some of the rural parts of England will retreat to their own venues instead of the local pub. This means even when there are diverse groups maintaining the population, it doesn’t keep the pubs open.

In areas where Shariah patrols by local Muslims are tolerated, pub visitors and public drinkers are harassed, leading many of the pubs to close.

But you cannot blame demographic changes alone. Native Brits themselves are drinking less alcohol, reducing demand for pubs. Between 2003 and 2011, the number of pints the average adult drank fell 30%.

In many places, pubs are family run. When the only child of the owner chooses something other than working long nights and weekends in a bar, the business closes or gets sold.

There are also far more recreational opportunities at home. You don’t have to go to the pub to socialize or get entertained in a world with TV, gaming consoles and internet. Young adults raised on digital entertainment are less likely to see socializing at a pub the highlight of the night, and if they do go out, a dance club or bar where hooking up is easier to do will win over the pub.

Regulatory Burdens

England passed laws that forbade children under 14 from entering a pub in 1995. These laws has been repealed overall but many landlords and towns still ban children in pubs. When the parents cannot bring children in for fish and chips while Mom has a glass of wine or Dad has a beer, the family goes somewhere else for dinner.

Health and safety regulation enforcement has closed the pubs that were typically run in the front room of someone’s home. This isn’t a bad thing except that it closes many pubs in rural areas now bereft of a public gathering place.

The smoking ban had an even greater impact, since many drinkers are also smokers. If you need a smoke with your beer, you’re more likely to have a beer at home where you can smoke in peace than have a beer inside alternating with a smoke outside. The number of pubs in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales all fell 11% within five years of implementing their smoking bans—a consistent percentage of decline despite the fact they implemented their smoking regulations at different times.

We know that regulation in general hurts pub numbers, because there were almost 100,000 pubs in England in 1905; the number fell to 77,500 in 1935 due to strict regulations and limits on the hours they could be open. The smoking prohibition is just one more rule. Planning rules have hit pubs hard since the 1980s, and falling real wages hurt the cost of running a pub when they have to have people around whether there is one customer or a hundred.

Some regulations are entirely the fault of the pub industry model. For most pubs, the pub landlord doesn’t own the land the pub is on but rents it from the company that owns the premises. The business arrangement requires the pub owner to buy beer from the real estate owner. This helps the company that sells the beer have someone who has to pay whatever price they can bear; it also leads to the disappearance of many pubs when the land owner may choose to sell the property for redevelopment rather than mark down the price of its beer, even if the latter would help keep the pub operating.

Large Chain Pubs

Large chain pubs are competing with small, historic pubs. Tipping scales in their favor, the large chain pubs benefit from name recognition and the efficiencies that come with scale. This is critical when supermarkets sell alcohol for a third of the price of beer served at the pub. In 2013, a tax on every pint of beer was reduced by a penny, but it isn’t enough to offset the cost of maintaining the pub “atmosphere.”

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on October 19, 2017:

Oztinato No, I'm not saying it is good that pubs are closing. I was only analyzing the factors behind the closures despite a growing British population.

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on September 11, 2016:


Then it boils down to a huge oversupply which has now rationalized itself due to basic supply and demand.

To me personally I don't think pubs are good for society in general.

Glen Rix from UK on September 11, 2016:

Pubs are closing for several reasons. A round of drinks is expensive now; people drink at home because it's cheaper; people are more health conscious than they were in the past; overheads are high.

Setank Setunk on September 11, 2016:

An oversupply of Pubs? We are not talking about Walmarts in Germany.

This is absolutely tragic, and I don't drink beer. If there was a real restaurant (none actually in my city) within thirty miles of my home I would still go there regularly to eat a good meal. But I suppose there in lies the Rub. Pubs or Poobs are situated for convenience, habit and impulse not planned outings.

Perhaps rural Pubs could attract loyal groups of urban yuppies by going to the cities and actively recruiting them. I see sweatshirts, attractive slogans, entertainment and beverage themes and karaoke. Yuppies are found of having their own special places and would not mind the drive.

My English Pub would have cheap vodka, Merle Haggard on karaoke and a bonnie lass from Inverness to wait tables.

Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on September 11, 2016:

I'm simply discussing why the number of British pubs are going down, not stating whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. It is a loss if there isn't an alternative civic space that people use.

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on September 11, 2016:

Are you saying it's a bad thing that there are less pubs? It's probably a good thing.

Here in Australia there is a huge oversupply of pubs so some have closed down.

I think the trend you are noticing is a result of an oversupply of pubs now returning to normal.

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