Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

With three pubs closing each week, is this now last orders for our bars?

Closing time: Auntie Annie's Belfast
Closing time: Auntie Annie's Belfast
Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster
Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster

Northern Ireland is currently losing more than three public houses every week as a result of the economic downturn.

Hundreds of pubs here have called time on their businesses over the past few years as the industry faces up to unprecedented trading difficulties.

And with increasing numbers of people opting to drink alcohol at home instead of venturing out to their local, more challenging times lie ahead for the province's licensing trade as the casualty rate accelerates.

Last week it emerged that a number of bars are up for sale by Osborne King, including Auntie Annie's on Belfast's Dublin Road, The Point in Ballyhackamore in east Belfast and The Phoenix in Newry.

And Botanic Inns Limited, which runs 14 venues including student mecca The Botanic Inn – one of Northern Ireland's busiest and most famous bars – is facing a winding-up order over unpaid rent on its headquarters. All of its venues are continuing to trade.

Colin Neill , chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, the professional body of the local retail licensed trade, said a year-on-year decline in alcohol sales and consumption was the main problem, but not the only one.

"It's quite chilling to think that, by the end of this week, Northern Ireland will have probably lost at least one more public house," he said.

Mr Neill revealed that in 2007 there were 1,481 premises with liquor licences in Northern Ireland compared to 1,252 in 2012 – and 174 pub closures in the last year alone.

It's a far cry from the 1980s when there were 2,500 bars dotted around the province, and the figures also show that drinking out is falling at a constant rate of 3.5% a year.

Similarly, there were 563 restaurants in 2011, but by 2012 that figure had fallen to 431, which represents 132 eateries wiped out in just one year.

Mr Neill said there is immense pressure on pubs from a range of outside factors, notwithstanding bad debt because of the revaluation of property and revaluation of licences.

"Habits have changed. The days of the boozy lunch are gone. People drinking on a work night happens less now,"he said.

"People who used to go to the pub for alcohol are going to the supermarket instead. These days a visit to the pub has become event-based – whether it's to meet friends, have a meal, listen to live music or watch live sport. There's a catalyst to make you go – and it's not merely going for a drink like it used to be."

Social media has also hit hard a fundamental role once played by the traditional pub.

"The pub used to be the only place where people socialised and it was very much the local community hub," said Mr Neill.

"But social media has changed that.

"Ironically, people are much less social.

"Nowadays people would rather stay at home with virtual friends when they used to go the pub with real ones. That is a big change."

In the absence of Government help, pubs selling booze alone face an uncertain future, but those that offer extra enticements are booming.

Belfast success stories include The Duke Of York and The Crown – both renowned tourist hotspots – The John Hewitt and The Errigle Inn.

And, despite these tough financial times, there are new, up-and-coming venues hitting the scene such as The Hudson, on Gresham Street in the Smithfield area.

Mr Neill said he firmly believed in the future of the public house, although some will have to change the way they do business if they want to survive.

"The future is based round events, socialising, music and food.

"It's about a quality product, really well managed and run responsibly," he said.

 

Factfile

The number of pubs in Northern Ireland:

2007 = 1,481

2008 = 1,476

2009 = 1,489

2010 = 1,437

2011 = 1,426

2012 = 1,252

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