The Big Question: Why are so many pubs shutting down, and is their decline bad for society?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Because pub closures have escalated in the past year. According to the British Beer and Pubs Association, 27 pubs a week closed in 2007 – seven times faster than the previous year and 14 times faster than 2005. This means that four pubs a day are closing.

The figures have been released a week before The Budget. The Government has run out of money, and the pub industry is anxious that the Government does not put up beer taxes. "Beer sales in pubs – the backbone of the trade – are now at their lowest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s," says the BBPA. "This is all the more reason to freeze the duty on beer in this year's Budget."

Fellow trade body the Wine and Spirit Trade Association is furiously lobbying too, though research shows that the public does not mind taxation on drink very much. Still, there is little doubt that the pub, one of the archetypes of British life and one of its most cherished institutions, is under threat.

So are rural pubs the hardest hit?

No. Although the small community pub has been under pressure for years, the latest spate of closures has swerved like a whirlwind down the crowded, highly-competitive high street.

Smaller chains have been struggling to stay afloat. The London-based Massive Pub Company has put most of its pubs in administration. Regents Inns, the owner of the Walkabout Australian themed pubs, is looking to sell off some of its premises and has been in takeover talks. The Laurel Pub Company has put 94 pubs up for sale. Last month the large Greene King pub chain, which has a record of lifting profits year after year, reported flat trade at its community-based pubs. According to the BBPA, two per cent of all urban pubs have closed in the past six months.

But aren't they just being turnedinto bars?

Many pubs are being lost with their conversion into trendier bars that serve up a wider range of drinks and louder music but no tradition. However the exact number is hard to glean because the BBPA figures include both pubs and bars. Camra, the real ale campaign, says that 56 pubs are closing every month. Because of the rise of bars, the overall number of licensed premises may be staying the same while pub numbers lurch ever sharply downwards.

Why are pubs in trouble?

Ask a publican and stand well back: rising rent, rates, fuel, property, taxation, lower disposable income (thanks to higher household bills and mortgages), the smoking ban, the trend towards wine drinking, and fierce competition from off-licences, newsagents and supermarkets.

Pubs without the room to provide an attractive outside areas for smokers, and those that are not big on food have faced particular difficulties. The move towards spirits and wine has hit the beery pub. Research shows that there has been a marked trend in the rise of "pre-loading", where drinkers, young adults mostly, buy booze from a shop and down it at home before groggily wandering off to a pub or bar, thereby spending less money on binge drinking.

But perhaps the clincher is that we seem to be drinking less overall, not just in pubs but everywhere from the park bench to the House of Commons. Although the Office for National Statistics cannot be sure that people are being truthful about how much they say they drink, it thinks alcohol consumption peaked in 2000 and has fallen every year since. According to the BBPA, average consumption is down 15 per cent on 2000.

What impact has the smoking ban had?

A big one in many traditional pubs, particularly those in inner-city pubs in industrial areas where tobacco consumption is greatest, according to pub groups. It is too early for a proper assessment of the ban, which was introduced in England and Wales on 1 July last year, but anecdotal evidence suggests that smokers' willingness to continue using pubs when it means going outside in all weathers just to light up may be limited. The other big legislative change has been the shake-up of the licensing laws. The 2003 Licensing Act which brought in round-the-clock drinking in November 2005 has encouraged drinking in the small hours in bars and clubs rather than in pubs, which rarely serve after midnight.

What is the Government doing?

With heavy drinking placing a burden on the police and hospitals, there is no early prospect of a "save our pubs" campaign from Downing Street.

Should we be concerned by the demise of the pub?

Pubs have evolved since their beginnings and are likely to continue to do so. They hark back to the 12th century when everyone baked their own bread and brewed their own beer. Those who brewed good beer opened pubs, or inns, and they have been gradually adapting to new innovations, such as the jukebox and chilled white wine. Pubs do, though, have certain characteristics which set them apart from sleeker, more modern bars. Pubs are also recognisably British, as much a feature of UK life as the red postbox or the London black cab.

Are pubs important to the nationalway of life?

Pubs were – and still are – something of a leveller in British society, a place where the stiff-upper lip can unfurl around a pint. They provide a meeting point for people who might not, at least at first, be invited into our homes. They are purveyors of real ale – the warm beer eulogised by John Major – which is arguably one of Britain's great contributions to international food and drink.

Where else but the pub can you find a place that so inexplicably combines the style of a front room with that of an agricultural outbuilding, with the bonus of draught alcohol. "When you get to the pub, you leave the troubles and hierarchies of the outside world at the door," says Pete Brown, blogger and author of Man Walks Into A Pub. "When you say, 'do you fancy a pint' at work it means you can go offline – and relax. When we are in the pub we can be ourselves and as a nation we are quite stiff and reserved and we need the pub to give us a nudge and break down social barriers."

Most people drink moderately, and enjoyably, when they go to the pub. At the last count there were 57,173 left. But every day you will have to subtract four from that figure.

Does it matter that pubs may be on the way out?

Yes...

* Pubs are a great historical and social tradition, part of the fabric that holds the country together

* They are vital for keeping alive some of the UK's great rural buildings and one of its culinary specialities – real ale

* Publicans are showing that they can adapt to modern times by introducing air conditioning, subtler lighting, wine and better food

No...

* Pubs are dingy, old-fashioned places that have failed to cater for more sophisticated drinkers

* They can encourage young men towards excess consumption of alcohol with consequent social problems

* Too many pubs remain rooted in a male-dominated culture that is unsympathetic to women and children

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