When it’s announced that 250 pubs are to open it might be considered a cause for celebration, particularly as Britain’s pubs have been closing at a rate of 50 a week. But who needs 250 more J D Wetherspoons? Aren’t they dreary barns full of lonely old men taking a break from the bookies, female office workers on a night out (to the only place they could agree on) or groups of lads looking for female office workers on a night out?
The sad truth is that free houses and tied properties still in the hands of Britain’s local brewers simply cannot make a living out of drink. Many of them - by virtue of their location – cannot offset this with sales of food. Pubs have been making so little on a pint of beer – relative to the brewers and HM Customs & Excise - that the business has become unsustainable. The days when you could drop into a country pub and have the clicking of an old clock, the conversation of the landlord and a couple of old regulars for company, are over.
So what’s different about J D Wetherspoon? They are popular and located in places where there is demand. You might be bombarded with non-stop piped music and multi-screens that no one can hear but this is the way of the world, so get used to it. It may seem churlish to harp on about J D Wetherspoon but what do they offer other than 743 – soon to 993 – formulaic money-making machines? In September the group announced pre-tax profits up 13.6% to ?66.2m and sales of ?955.1 in the year to 26th July. With commercial property prices falling, now is their chance to inflict another 250 ‘barns’ on us. I know, I know, it will create 10,000 jobs on top of the 21,000 they already employ and as chairman Tim Martin says: “Our pubs are extremely popular and we wish to build on their success by opening more.” The great mystery is: why? What’s that expression about never underestimating the bad taste of the public?
Isn’t it time to clip the wings of these behemoths before they suffocate what’s left of Britain’s on-trade? Instead of a place you could go for a drink and a conversation, we’ve now got pubs where the only interest is sales and turnover. It’s a numbers game and no one’s better at it than J D Wetherspoon. I know J D Wetherspoon does “guest beers” but its principal business is pushing “continental lagers” and the euphemistically termed “fine wine”. It’s all about corralling choice and benefiting from economies of scale. I don’t know about you but when I think of going out to the pub, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t: “Let’s go there - they do great economies of scale.”
This might sound like nostalgia but it isn’t. It’s a plea for difference; a plea for nuance and a plea for individuality. There have always been bad pubs, places where you could be pinned to the wall with a pool cue for merely being in the wrong part of town, but the good, bad and indifferent all had one thing in common – they were different. A good landlord could make a pub and a bad one ruin it, and this was the case regardless of whether it was a free house or a tied house. Now we have managers who don’t have to build a rapport with anyone except the regional manager.
The pub has become just another dispiriting example of how we have opted for mediocrity and uniformity. We’ve already got the cloned High Street but do we really want the ubiquitous pub chain to go with it?
Ed Hart is a finalist in stv.tv's The Write Factor competition. The views expressed are not necessarily those of STV plc. If you would like to read more from this writer, use our comment system below.