Pubs may have to call 'time' as their popularity declines
They were once an essential after-work stop – but the popularity of pubs is waning, with more than a third at risk of closure over the next year.
The figure, in line with the national average, compares to 24 per cent of other businesses which are at risk, according to R3, the body which represents insolvency experts.
Observers have largely attributed the demise to the availability of cheap supermarket booze, which undercuts pubs. In tough economic times, increasing numbers are prepared to sacrifice visiting a pub to save money and drink at home.
Not long ago, Callington had three thriving pubs – but two have recently closed. Town mayor Jeremy Gist said the situation was "sad, but symptomatic of society".
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He said: "The very people who say 'oh isn't it a shame, we've lost our pub' are the same people who go tripping off to the supermarket to buy their beer and wine.
"As a country, I think we would be better off if we returned to the days when alcohol was the domain of specialist off-licenses, bars and clubs."
He said pubs had traditionally been on a par with churches or chapels as the hub of community life, and said: "Take that away, and society becomes very insular."
In Barnstaple, town centre manager Craig Bulley said the community was "lucky" to have lost just two of its 19 bars and clubs. But he said: "I have no doubt that in the same way that retailers are facing challenging times, the evening economy sector is facing hard times, too."
Jon Dunkley, chairman of Barnstaple's Chamber of Commerce, said it was particularly difficult for people to get finance to take over a pub. And he said new regulations governing gaming machines would make life yet more difficult for landlords.
He said: "A lot of people who are bailing out and getting rid of their assets aren't able to do so, so the whole thing just goes down the pan."
Steve Scarff, chairman of the Licensed Victuallers' Association in the South West, and landlord at Plymouth's Railway Inn, said seven pubs in the surrounding Stoke area had gone out of business in the last fortnight alone.
He believes much of the fault lies with supermarkets, but said pub operators who tied licensees in to contracts which meant they paid higher prices for drinks was also a major issue.
Mr Scarff, who gave up the Mermaid at Eggbuckland four years ago because of his contract, said: "I was paying £184 for a keg of Fosters. Now I'm freehold, I can get it for £84, and yet prices have gone up by 17 per cent. It's a fight to keep the place alive. It's ridiculous."
Now, business is thriving, but Mr Scarff has invested in facilities such as Sky Sports packages and live entertainment which is hard for struggling businesses to afford.
Joanne Rumley, chair of the R3 South West and Wales region and partner at law firm Bond Pearce, said customers were getting more discerning. "Some pubs desperately require reinvestment but currently, there isn't enough ready cash to do so or funders aren't necessarily interested in investing more money. Those who cannot compete with the most trendy, convenient or best value may well face closure in the not too distant future."