Uncertainty Threatens York Pubs


Thomas Dalton talks to local landlords about their role in the community and the challenges of rising prices and strikes.

Article Image

Image by Billy Wilson

By Thomas Dalton

Of the things our little island in the North Atlantic does well, pubs may well be our greatest feature. These little communal oases have long stood as part of Britain’s DNA. From quaint villages in the Cotswolds where the local has served a community for centuries, with previous drinkers remembered by a myriad of brass plaques adorning the bar, to the Vanbrugh Arms on a Monday night, where one can enjoy an excellent evening of live jazz. While these examples may seem  worlds apart - the quiet traditional village pub as opposed to the loud vibrant student bar - the bottom line on why such institutions exist in the first place is universal. We have enjoyed such establishments for millennia, for the community and enjoyment they offer.

Therefore, it is of great distress to many that pubs within York and across the country are facing extraordinary difficulties as a result of the long lasting effects of Covid and the cost of living crisis. Freya Simpson, purchasing manager at the Shambles Tavern, has noticed significant changes in the habits of pub-goers in the last few years. For example, recent sales of food have dropped by around 50 percent however sales of drinks have risen by 50 percent. Despite the fact the Shambles Tavern has had to raise the price  of beer by 80p per pint to account for the rising cost of utilities, consumers still value the importance of a pub, albeit saving their appetite for more economical homemade meals.

It goes without saying that numerous York businesses are heavily reliant on the steady stream of tourists that come throughout the year to enjoy the sights  our beautiful city has to offer. Particularly in the case of the Shambles Tavern, located on the Shambles Street itself which attracts so many tourists. While the occasional sea of tourists may distract from the beauty of the street, they are undoubtedly a vital group of consumers many York businesses would be financially unsustainable without.

The dependence York has on its  supply of tourists means that the Shambles Tavern is especially susceptible to a downfall in business if this supply were to be affected.  Bartenders have noticed a significant drop in the number of customers on days where there is disruption to travel. The York Transport Consultation found in 2019 that 95 percent of tourists in York arrived there by train and that tourists made up around two-thirds of the people in the centre of York on a weekend. Therefore, on a day where there is significant disruption to the trains, it could be expected that foot traffic in the centre of York drops by two-thirds. Even on days without disruption to trains, some business owners have noticed that there are less fewer customers as potential visitors have become cautious about travelling by rail to avoid any inconveniences.

As a result of this turmoil to tourist numbers, York pub owners have become increasingly uncertain about the future of their businesses. Previously, it was rather straightforward to forecast trade, however recent events make this more difficult. Surprisingly, January was a very strong month for the Shambles Tavern, however the February half-term was abnormally quiet. This uncertainty makes it increasingly difficult to make future decisions for the business, such as when to buy food and drink or organising staffing schedules. Even in pubs where there remains a strong and consistent customer base, the rising cost of running a pub is squeezing margins.

Landlord Tom Renshaw of the Waggon and Horses, a popular student pub on along Lawrence Street, commented that energy and gas prices are going up “astronomically” for the establishment. A month’s utility bill that otherwise would be around £1000 is now over £4000. Even with a steady influx of students during term time, the rising cost of energy places pub owners in between a rock and a hard place. “We’ve got three levers to pull” says Tom, “cut costs, reduce staffing or raise prices”. The Waggon and Horses is fortunate in the fact they are a B&B which allows for some diversity and stability in their income, yet some pubs do not have this luxury.

Pubs within smaller communities are perhaps most at risk. In particular, drink-exclusive pubs that do not offer food or rooms and serve smaller communities are at risk of permanent closure. Indeed, such closures would follow a worrying trend of pubs closing their doors permanently. Since 1980, 25,000 pubs have shut down indefinitely, and thus we have a third fewer pubs now compared to 40 years ago. For me this is a great shame. Pubs serve as the soul of many communities in the UK, each pub with their own fascinating story to explain their individually unique pub names, each with their own loyal set of locals for whom these places are indispensable. As for some individuals, these institutions are a lifeline to their social life, a familiar place to meet old friends and make new ones. ‘Pub’ is a shortening of ‘public house’ and subsequently should feel that way: ‘home’.

As pubs face a challenging 2023, it’s on all of us to keep supporting these linchpins of the community  in York or at your local back home, and ensure these vital institutions keep their heads above the water.