The village pub is a key – even clichéd – feature of rural England. They evoke images of pork scratchings and perilously low beams, frothy pints of warm ale and the summertime knock of willow on leather. They are often described as “friendly” and “homey” and many believe that they foster social relationships among residents, strengthening the level of cohesion in villages and positively contributing to communal well-being. But very few studies have tried to verify scientifically whether this is the case.
In one of my recent studies, funded by the British Academy and published in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, I examined communities and parishes with no more than 3,000 individuals, situated at least five miles (or 10 minutes’ drive) from towns or larger parishes of 5,000 inhabitants or more.
Together with Dr Matthew Mount of Leeds University, we collected information from several sources, including Actions with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), to create an index measuring levels of community cohesion and well-being within communities across the English countryside.
We then focused on 284 parishes – and investigated the impact pubs had on community cohesion. Overall, we found that pubs had a positive, statistically significant impact on social engagement and involvement among residents living in the English countryside. We also found that this positive effect increased threefold between 2000 and 2010 (the period we examined) – possibly because pubs have become increasingly important as other essential services such as post offices and village shops have closed.
Our analysis also highlighted that parishes with a pub had more community events – such as sports matches, charity events, and social clubs – than those without or those with just sports or village halls. Simply speaking, opportunities for communal initiatives would be vastly reduced, if not nonexistent, in these parishes without the presence of pubs. But the presence of more than one pub provided no additional benefit. In other words, two pubs don’t lead to a stronger sense of community than one – and may even increase the likelihood of other problems, such as noise.
Our study reaffirms the significant role played by local pubs. But this comes as pub numbers are in rapid decline. Figures released by the British Beer and Pubs Association in 2016 show there are approximately 50,800 pubs open in Britain today – compared with nearly 68,000 in 1982. That’s a decline of 25% while the British population has increased by 14% over the same period. And when judged against the findings of our study, that has to be bad for community cohesion.