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Study confirms pubs’ key role in rural communities

Posted on 9 October 2014

A study of rural pubs has provided the first robust evidence of their central role in the life of English rural communities.

According to researchers, television’s portrayal of pubs such as Emmerdale’s The Woolpack as the hub of the local community is not too distant from reality.  

The study, which was funded by a British Academy award, involved the analysis of data for social engagement and volunteering and leisure activities. It found that on all three fronts pubs are having a significant positive impact, creating more community cohesion in rural areas. 

The research was led by Dr Ignazio Cabras, an Associate Fellow of the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis (YCCSA) at the University of York, and a Reader at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University. 

Dr Cabras, formerly a lecturer with the York Management School at the University of York, said: “There are many anecdotal suggestions regarding the importance of pubs for local communities. However, this study has examined the role these places play in the English countryside by using a scientific approach, analysing a significant number of data available at parish level. It provides more robust evidence in support of the claim that pubs effectively contribute to increasing social engagement and community cohesion among residents in rural areas of England. 

“We see rural pubs depicted on TV, such as The Woolpack, as the local meeting point and hub for the community to engage with each other. This has now been proven as an accurate depiction of life in rural England.” 

The study, which also involved Dr Matthew Mount, now a lecturer at Leeds University Business School, looked at 2,769 English parishes. It focused on pubs in rural communities or parishes with fewer than 3,000 people situated at least five miles (or 10 minutes’ drive) from towns or larger parishes of 5,000 inhabitants or more. The researchers examined information such as the availability of local facilities and services, the size of the resident population and the level of employment, which they then used to measure levels of community cohesion and well-being in the selected parishes. 

The researchers also examined a sub-sample of 293 parishes for which information was available at two different time points - 2000 and 2010. Further analysis of these parishes suggested the positive effects pubs have on rural communities are maintained over time.

The study highlighted a strong relationship between the presence of pubs and social events and activities taking place in a parish – much stronger than that for other facilities such as sports halls and other infrastructure. These findings match those gathered from a similar study on rural pubs in Ireland, also led by Dr Cabras and completed at the beginning of 2014. 

Dr Cabras said: “There are now just 49,000 pubs in Britain today, compared with 69,000 in 1980, as public houses all over the country are hit by factors deterring visitors including a general reduction in customer spending and more competitive alcohol prices in off-licence retailers. In rural areas, this decline has been exacerbated by smaller populations and fewer opportunities in terms of public transport, which make these areas less attractive compared to urban areas from a business perspective. 

“However, it appears that the pub has increased its importance as the main hub in the community’s infrastructure, offering support to a wide range of activities. Pubs function as physical incubators which foster engagement and involvement among the community, as well as creating jobs for local people and local suppliers. 

“The closure of rural pubs is strongly associated with the decline of social drinking and increasing levels of alcohol consumption in private premises. It is vital the Government supports rural pubs with appropriate policies to ensure our rural way of life is maintained.”

John Longden, Chief Executive of Pub is The Hub, said: “While there is no direct link with the study and Pub is The Hub, the aims and objectives of both are complementary and confirm the significance of these businesses in the British rural context. 

“In rural areas pubs act as essential melting pots for bringing the community together from all walks of life and this study concludes that it is yet another vital services that the countryside cannot afford to lose.”

Further information:

  • The report ‘The importance of pubs in shaping community cohesion and social wellbeing in rural areas of England’ was prepared with the  support of the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant Scheme (SRG 112786). An executive summary of the study is available at 
  • The British Academy is the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences. For more information visit
  • More information on the York Management School at the University of York at      
  • York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis (YCCSA) is a community of researchers drawn from different departments developing novel mathematical, computational and analytical methods and tools for the analysis and modelling of complex systems. More information at

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