London’s pubs are a world-famous institution and their historic and cultural significance cannot be understated. From famous old boozers soaked in history to trendy craft beer bars, pubs remain a vital part of our capital’s character and social life.
However, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) the capital has lost 1,200 pubs in the last 15 years. This is a worrying trend: at a time when the decline of high streets is eroding our sense of place, public houses continue to serve as important shared spaces and meeting places.
Pubs generate employment, keep money in the local economy and – when well run – can help bind that community together. And while we mustn’t turn a blind eye towards the health and social impacts of alcohol consumption, pubs provide a regulated and social drinking environment for all and can serve as a lifeline for some of society’s loneliest people.
They also play a crucial role in sustaining the social and cultural life of London’s many different social groups: for minority groups, the loss of even a single venue can be a grievous one. This was amply demonstrated by the outpouring of emotion following the closure of Camden’s Black Cap in 2015 – a lynchpin of London’s LGBT+ community for four decades. Once gone, venues like the Black Cap are incredibly hard to replace.
These are challenging times for pubs right across the country. A myriad of factors including new drinking habits, cheap shop-bought alcohol, demand for land and a changing leisure landscape have all contributed to the decline. With the high street as a whole facing a mighty challenge from internet shopping, the Government must do far more to support our pubs and unpick the huge advantage that the supermarkets have over publicans.
In this context, the recent news that Tower Hamlets Council has taken steps to protect their pubs is welcome. Thirty-five of their most famous bars – frequented by figures ranging from Brunel to Richard Burton – have been listed as “assets of local importance”. It’s a much needed and timely intervention in a borough that’s seen 42 per cent of its pubs close since 2001. I would welcome moves from other local authorities to do the same.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is also taking steps through the new London Plan to better protect pubs, and he’s called on boroughs to list pubs as Assets of Community Value (ACV), which offers them at least some defence and a period of grace when the developers come knocking.
However, the strongest protection the Mayor can give is through his Agent of Change principle. Far too many pubs (and indeed music venues) have been lost because a new development – usually residential – arrives in the area, prompting noise complaints from the new residents. All too often these changes, occurring through no fault of the existing venue, has sealed the fate of pubs and bars unable to meet the cost of retrofitting soundproofing. Agent of Change would stop this from happening as it shifts the onus from the licensee to the developer. This important move will help protect existing communities and stem the flow of closures.
The government needs to step up to protect our locals too. While the decision to end the permitted development rights that resulted in the conversion of countless pubs into flats and shops is certainly welcome, it’s just one of many measures that need to be taken to protect these cherished assets for the future.
To start with, the Government could ease some of the punishing combination of what CAMRA call the ‘triple whammy’ of beer duty, VAT and business rates, which put such an enormous strain on pub finances. Business rates in particular are a huge issue for many London watering holes, with land values completely out of proportion with the money that can be made from serving beer to people in often very poor parts of the capital. Failure to effectively reform the beer tie still traps too many landlords in an unsustainable relationship with their brewery and severely limits customer choice.
There is, however, some cause for optimism. Seven boroughs saw an increase in pub numbers in 2016-17 and there has been an uplift in the number of people employed by London pubs. This is the consequence of a shift towards larger pubs which now offer food, leading them to employ more people as chefs and waiting staff. While this diversification is to be welcomed, it also serves to emphasise the risk to smaller establishments who might not have either the space or the capital to begin a food offering.
Pubs are a part of our culture and heritage. They nurture communities, promote tourism and speak deeply to London’s rich history. When they’re gone, they’re usually gone for good, and a little of what makes London such a unique and rich place goes with them. We owe it to our city to speak out for them, and to campaign for the reform they so desperately need, so they can continue to serve us as valuable common spaces for years to come. That’s well worth raising a glass to.
On London would like to declare that Tom Copley AM has never once bought its editor a drink.
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