Wednesday 3 September 2014

Have we won the real ale war?

"The battle for real ale has been won. We must now turn our attentions to saving our pubs!" says CAMRA's Greater London regional director, reported by Geraldine Rolfe in What's Brewing, the campaign's newspaper. It's an interesting thought, but is it true?

It is true that we have a highest percentage of pubs selling real ale in decades, and that the range of real ales available in most localities is greater than at any time since the rise of the big brewing companies. I know individual pubs that have a greater range of real ales than some towns did in the 1970s. Despite all that, I am not convinced by the Greater London regional director's assertion.

Firstly, real ale and pubs are inextricably entwined. You can't have the first without the second. I know there are bottled real ales, but they constitute a very small percentage of total real ale sales. It's obvious, therefore, that a threat to pubs is a threat to real ale.

Secondly, there are communities where the only significant real ale provision is in Wetherspoons. Such communities are not enjoying the benefits of winning the battle for real ale.

Thirdly, it is a naïve campaigner who assumes that a victory, once achieved, can be treated as being in the bag and therefore no longer in need of attention.

Pinning our hopes of saving pubs by getting planning regulations tightened up is to miss several points. While there are a few exceptions, most pubs that are converted to other uses were not previously thriving. Why not? I wrote three years ago:

In no particular order, the causes of problems for pubs include:
  • Beer taxes rising by more than the rate of inflation. 
  • Pub companies overcharging their tenants for rent and supplies (including drinks).
  • Falling beer sales overall (except for real ale ~ just).
  • Cut-price drink in supermarkets.
  • Sophisticated home entertainment systems.
  • Changes in drinking habits, with young people increasingly going to their preferred bars and clubs, and less to what they call “old men’s” pubs.
  • More choices of places to drink, such as bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs.
  • The recession, leaving people with less cash and either unemployed or worried they might be.
  • Rising costs for brewers (e.g. raw materials) and pubs (e.g. utility bills).
  • The smoking ban.
  • Tougher drink-drive enforcement.* 
* By this, I really meant the increasing pressure against driving within the legal limit.

To these I'd now add: 
  • Pub companies deliberately running pubs down to the point when they become unviable. Most people don't want to sit in a dingy pub that hasn't seen a lick of paint this millennium.
  • Draconian under-age drinking laws, resulting in the next generation of drinkers developing drinking habits unlinked to pubs.
Even if CAMRA achieved exactly what it wanted with planning regulations, none of these factors would be addressed. Changing the planning regulations is not the cure, in the same way that the 2p cut in beer duty has not, as far as I can see, saved a single pub. If pubs aren't safe, neither is real ale.

No gains can be taken for granted. Most people have a lot less disposable income than they did four years ago and alcohol consumption is in decline. If the government decided to introduce an adverse change to beer taxation, perhaps even a reduction or abolition of Progressive Beer Duty, many micro-brewers would close. It's not impossible that anti-alcohol campaigners could gain even more influence on government policy. The corrosive effects of all the factors I've listed above may become more pronounced. 

My aim with this post has been to explain why I believe real ale's apparently healthy situation is more precarious than it looks and that it wouldn't take much to send it into decline. It's certainly true that the current proliferation of micro-breweries cannot be maintained if the outlets for their products continue to close. At some point, the latter will impact upon the former. Overall, I do not share the complacency of CAMRA's Greater London regional director. CAMRA should stop finding a "Reason of the Month" for pub decline and take a more holistic view if it doesn't wish to look like it is clutching at straws when determining campaigning priorities.


  1. A lot of what CAMRA says about pubs seems to be very London-centric - it's hard to think of a single pub round here that tighter planning controls would had any chance of saving.

    And there still seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge that the decline of pubs is largely demand-driven, for the reasons you list.

  2. Pubs will never be safe, nothing is ever safe, you cannot by action or inaction make something safe. An acceptance of the precarious nature of existence is key to appreciating the truth of existence and walking the path of enlightenment.

  3. Too true @Cookie,
    Oh flowing time, oh flux eternal. Hold
    The hour back. The April hour goes.

  4. Seriously, Nev, you ought to submit this as an opinion piece to "What's Brewing", although they probably wouldn't print it. There's a good case to be made for requiring planning permission to convert pubs to shops, but it's very misguided to imagine that it will make much difference to pub closures.

  5. Main reasons:

    People are skint
    People are worried about their health
    Young people are scared of pubs
    Young people think alcohol is stupid
    Young people don't like beer
    Increased number of Muslims (not a complaint, I'm no racist, but it is a factor)

    Its also a vicious cycle - no-one likes empty pubs, so they become even emptier.

    1. I must come across different young people than you, py.

  6. Are the ones you meet mainly in pubs?


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