Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Britain: Last orders for the traditional British pub

In Britain, old and beloved institutions are not necessarily immune to the effects of the economic downturn. In fact, British pubs are closing at an alarming rate - nearly 2,400 in the past year alone, with the loss of 24,000 jobs. Critics say if the government doesn't ease up on beer taxes, the trend will continue.

For hundreds of years, British pubs have been at the center of social life. The place to go for a pint of beer and lively conversation. But Britain's pubs are under threat. The poor economy, a ban on smoking inside and high taxes on beer consumed at pubs are all putting pubs under pressure.

Bridget Walsh has been in the business for 42 years. She says pub culture is changing.

"People aren't going into pubs the way they used to years ago. They tend to go to restaurants. They tend to buy cheap booze in supermarkets and drink indoors, because people have entertainment indoors these days," she said.

It's not just indoor entertainment people are looking for. Pubs - once smoke-filled rooms - are no longer.

Smokers have to go outside these days. That's hurt business too. "If they can't have a pint and a cigarette, you might as well drink at home," Walsh adds.

At the annual Great British Beer Festival in London, there are hundreds of beers, bitters, ales and plenty of enthusiasts. One might almost believe that pubs will be forever.

But Neil Williams from the British Beer and Pub Association says the problem is serious.

"Fifty-two pubs are closing every week here in the U.K., and that's a big increase and, if we don't take action, we're going to lose a lot of our much-loved community pubs," he said.

Williams says taxes on beer served in pubs rose by 20 percent in 18 months. All in all, he says it's a difficult time.

"The smoking ban coincided with a lot of other very adverse trading conditions: rising costs, we had rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, plus huge tax increases, so we've likened it to a perfect storm," he said.

Stuart Mills, an entrepreneur, sees the downturn as an opportunity. He runs an Internet service that allows customers to have their mail delivered to their local pub.

"What we're really trying to to is to do two things, to get more people into pubs more often, but also to help pubs cement their position at the heart of their local communities," Mills explains.

Tastes here are changing though. Wine bars, a recent trend, are taking away some of the business for pubs.

But the British love of beer and the rare British summer day will mean, pub owners hope, that business will never totally dry up.

Published with the permission of Voice of America

Published by Mike Hitchen i On Global Trends, world news, analysis, opinion
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