Last orders? The decline of pubs around the UK

Pubs are deemed an important part of the UK; an article in Time stated they improve community engagement and are the third most popular tourist activity. Research from the University of Oxford suggests moderate alcohol consumption may improve wellbeing, due to the social interaction involved in having a drink with friends at the pub.

Despite this, pub numbers in the UK have been in steady decline. The data, taken from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), shows this decline varies regionally, and according to the type of pub ownership. Perhaps surprisingly, employment in pubs has not fallen, but slightly increased in recent years.

The ONS data is used for the regional statistics. Its count includes the numbers of pubs and bars around the UK.

A 2014 report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) found that the fall in pub numbers was due to:

  • Regulations such as the 2007 smoking ban.
  • Economic factors such as the 2008 recession.
  • Increased taxation.
  • Reduced alcohol consumption. Studies show that increasing numbers of 16 to 24-year-olds are choosing not to drink alcohol.

The fall of national pub figures

Organisations such as the BBPA and Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) have been monitoring the number of pubs in the UK for some time. BBPA has estimated the number of pubs fell by 37.5 per week, between 2016 and 2017.

This decrease has been steady for several decades. From 2000 to 2017, pub numbers declined by 12,450, or 20%. More recently, between 2011 and 2017 pub numbers fell by 12%.

A graph showing the number of pubs in the UK from 1990 to 2017. in 1990 there were 64,000 and in 2017 there were 48,000.
Source: ‘Table E5: Ownership of public houses in the UK’, British Beer and Pub Association Statistical Handbook 2018, August 2018, p.68.

Where is the biggest fall in pubs and bars?

The number of pubs and bars have fallen at varying rates across the UK. Northern Ireland had the biggest percentage fall, with 425 fewer pubs from 2001 to 2018: a 35% decrease.

In comparison, the South West had 18%, or 940, fewer pubs and bars over the same period. The number of pubs and bars declined by 25% across the UK between 2001 and 2018.

A graph showing the percentage change in the number of UK pubs and bars by region and country from 2001 to 2018. The UK average was -25%. The percentage decline in Northern Ireland was -35% and in the south west -18%.

Source:Office for National Statistics, Public houses and bars by local authority, 26 November 2018

But the number of independent pubs has increased

Whilst the overall number of pubs has decreased, the number of independent pubs increased by 18% between 2000 and 2017. The BBPA estimate that in 2017 there were around 22,650 independently owned pubs, in comparison to 19,200 in 2000.

Government policy in 1989, known as ‘The Beer Orders’, limited the number of pubs a brewery could own to 2,000. The Government was concerned that brewery dominance in the sector was anti-competitive, and so The Orders were designed to encourage competition.

From this policy, the Pub Company (PubCo) business model emerged. A report by the Business and Enterprise Committee on the pub industry defined PubCos as:

The Beer Orders caused a drop in the number of brewery-owned pubs at the start of the 1990s. However, the number has plateaued over the 2000s, only decreasing by 2% from 2000 to 2017.

PubCo owned pubs have more than halved in number over the same period. From 1990 to 2017, the number of PubCo pubs was at its highest in 2003, at 32,500. Since then, there has been a steep decline; in 2017 there were 14,700 PubCo owned pubs.

A line graph showing the ownership of pubs in the UK from 2000 to 2017. There has been an increase in independently-owned pubs and a decrease in PubCos. Brewery-owned pubs slightly increased in 2016.
Source: ‘Table E5: Ownership of public houses in the UK’, British Beer and Pub Association Statistical Handbook 2018, August 2018, p.68.

How many pubs per head?

In 2017, there were 73 pubs for every 100,000 people in the UK. In 1990 there were 111 pubs per 100,000 people.

This decline in pubs per head is due the fall in pub numbers, and an increase in the UK population. Between 1991 and 2017, the total UK population rose by 15%, whilst the number of pubs fell by 22%.

In the regions and countries of the UK, the South West had the highest number of pubs per head, with 76 pubs per 100,000 people. London had the lowest number of pubs per 100,000 people: 40.

A map showing that the south west had the most pubs per person in 2018 and London had the fewest.
Population data: Office for National Statistics (NOMIS database), Population estimates, latest data release 28 June 2018.
Pub data: ‘Table E5: Ownership of public houses in the UK’, British Beer and Pub Association Statistical Handbook 2018, August 2018, p.68.

Pub employment has been broadly steady

Employment data in the pub sector is published by the ONS. The data represents employment levels in pubs and bars. Other than a decline between 2009 and 2011, the number of people employed in pubs and bars has remained broadly steady since 2001. This is due to an increase in the number of people employed in large pubs.

There was a slight decline in employment between 2009 and 2011, but in 2018, there were 5,000 more people working in pubs and bars than in 2001.

From 2001 to 2018, employment in pubs and bars with 10 to 24 employees increased by 10%. Establishments with 25-49 employees saw a 74% increase in employment, and those with 50 or more employees had a 25% increase in employment.

The number of people employed in small pubs (employing less than ten people) fell by 41%, from 176,000 in 2001 to 103,000 in 2018.

A graph showing the number of employees in a UK pub or bar from 2001 to 2018. In 2001 there were 445,000 and in 2018 450,000.

Further reading


About the author: Niamh Foley is a researcher specialising in economic policy and statistics at the House of Commons Library.


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