The decline of the British pub may be at an end, according to official figures showing that the number of pubs has increased for the first time this decade.
The UK ended March 2019 with 39,135 pubs, 320 more than a year earlier, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It is the first net increase since 2010.
The rise marked a dramatic turnaround compared with the previous nine years, during which the UK pub network declined by an average of 732 each year, comparable data showed.
The nascent revival could gather momentum after Tim Martin, the founder and boss of the Wetherspoon chain, announced plans to spend £200m on expansion, an investment he said would create 10,000 jobs.
“The reduction of pubs over the last decade has been heart-breaking, following devastating changes to business taxes and alcohol duties, but I hope these figures signpost a reversal of fortunes,” said Patrick Clover, chief executive of Leith-based hospitality industry software firm Stampede, which analysed the ONS figures.
Stampede said the change may be down to pubs realising they can no longer rely on the “same old regulars”, instead improving their food menus, offering accommodation and events such as live music.
Communities have also been exercising new powers to save their local from redevelopment, while former chancellor Philip Hammond introduced relief on business rates for some pubs, although he was criticised for exaggerating the scale of the relief.
Nik Antona, chairman of real ale enthusiasts’ group Camra, said: “We welcome this data that shows a slight increase in the number of open pubs nationally.
“Unfortunately pubs continue to close, particularly in small or rural communities. This means the loss of the social, cultural and economic benefits that come with a well run local.
“To ensure pubs survive and thrive, they need a fair tax system and stability going forward.”
While the ONS figures showed an increase, industry trade body the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) warned that its own statistics, which capture a higher number of pubs, showed a turning point was yet to be reached.
“We would cautiously welcome any good news for pubs, however our own data suggests a higher base of pubs, and has shown higher closure rates for the last five years.
“In the New Year we will be able to report 2019 pub numbers versus 2018.”
He added: “If people want to see pubs flourish, policymakers need to create the right environment for them to grow.”
The ONS estimated the total number of pubs at 39,135 in March 2019, while the BBPA published a figure of 47,600 at the end of 2018, down from 48,350 the year before.
This is because government statisticians are thought to group some pubs together as single enterprises.
But the BBPA has said it believed the rate of closures was slowing, while the increase charted in ONS numbers marked a dramatic reversal in a 10-year trend.
The increase shown in the ONS numbers was driven almost entirely by a rise in the number of pubs in England, according to a regional breakdown of the figures.
Wales ended the year with 25 fewer pubs, Scotland declined by five and Northern Ireland increased by the same amount but England recorded an increase of 345. The expansion was mainly thanks to larger pubs.
Wetherspoon, which has 875 pubs, has been among the chains to capitalise by focusing on larger sites with a strong food offering.
But Martin said the company’s plan to invest £200m over four years would focus on investing in areas where pubs have been disappearing.
“We are especially pleased that a large proportion of the investment will be in smaller towns and cities which have seen a decline in investment in recent years.
The company will establish new pubs in Bourne, Waterford, Hamilton, Ely, Diss, Felixstowe, Newport Pagnell and Prestatyn, he said.
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