London’s pubs have re-opened into a changed and challenging new reality – and all was not well, even before the crisis. How can we ensure that coronavirus is not the final straw?
On 4 July, after a 15–week pandemic-induced hibernation, Britain’s pubs were finally permitted to reopen. As of mid-August, around three-quarters of pubs have now done so.
Yet despite the best efforts of publicans and punters alike, trade in pubs across the country in July 2020 was significantly lower than the same period last year, and London’s pubs were hardest hit: down 58 per cent, compared to a UK average of 48.5 per cent.
Before the pandemic
London’s public houses have had a tough time in recent years. Between 2001 and 2017, the capital lost a quarter of its pubs, and in 2016/17 saw a rate of closure of more than one a week. Each borough had a different story to tell, although small pubs were most vulnerable across the board.
But no one could pinpoint why this was happening. Some blamed national government policy, from business rates to the smoking ban. Others have pointed out that Brits are drinking less alcohol than they used to, something particularly true of Londoners. The high value of land in the capital has also been cited as tempting pub owners to sell up to build more profitable housing.
Despite this pattern, polling shows that Londoners do not want to lose their pubs. Before the pandemic hit, over three quarters of Londoners used them, and just as many said they thought pubs important to ‘London’s cultural heritage’. Visitors to the capital seemed to agree – over half of international visitors to our nation’s capital visit a pub as part of their trip.
And so London responded. The Mayor’s draft London Plan guided local authorities to strengthen planning policies and prevent conversions to residential. And pubs themselves are ever broadening their offers, with many moving away from the cliched ‘smokey and blokey’ boozer towards more diverse, accessible – and not always entirely alcohol–centred – establishments.
But the onset of the pandemic then threw pubs already at risk into crisis. Some pubs groups reported sizeable coronavirus-related losses even before lockdown.
The furlough scheme, and a business rates relief ‘holiday’ for 2020/21, have helped pubs avoid putting the shutters up permanently. At one point in the crisis, the British Beer and Pub Association estimated that as much as 90 per cent of UK pub staff were placed on furlough. A cut in VAT to five per cent on accommodation and food (but not drink) will help some, but not all – so too the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme.
Central London pubs face a particular challenge. Whereas it was pubs in local neighbourhoods who were struggling more pre-pandemic, it has been those in the city centre who have felt the impact of the crisis most keenly. Centre for London research shows that consumer spending collapsed in central London between January and July, but actually increased in some smaller outer London town centres.
Many city centre pubs are short on space, and accommodating physical distancing measures will prove challenging. The City of London’s weekday boozers, described as ‘wet-led’, are historically standing-room-only affairs, with little space or facilities to serve food. They are not well placed to benefit from the Chancellor’s VAT discounts or voucher scheme. And their customers are likely to be the last to return.
But there are also (always) reasons to be cheerful.
Pubs across the capital, and indeed the nation, have introduced a host of measures to protect customers: enhancing cleaning regimes; introducing perspex screens and redesigning interiors; taking reservations and holding customers’ contact details in case of an outbreak.
But more radical adaptation has been made possible by cooperative weather, and enabled by cooperative councils, offering some hope for central London. Photos of crowds of packed-in revellers in Soho on 4 July sparked a wave of justifiable anxiety/pious armchair judgement on social media. But images of car-free Soho streets, kitted out with tables and chairs for ‘continental-style’ outdoor drinking and dining, have been met with near-unanimous acclaim from urbanists.
A shortage of indoor space – which until recently came at a premium in the city centre – may in places be compensated by near-empty streets, claimed temporarily alongside limited road closures. Central London currently has a unique (if temporary) relative lack of competing uses to worry about, in what was previously an extremely mixed use area.
Outer London pubs could also benefit from Londoners living increasingly localised lives. ‘No longer commuting’ commuters are now around on weekdays, spending more time and money in their neighbourhoods. Outdoor space, from carparks to industrial estates, is more easily available outside of central London, and there has been a trend towards breweries opening taprooms with outdoor space for some time. A period of isolation, followed by an uptick in home working, have made our shared community spaces more, not less, important.
London’s pubs are not expecting an easy time. And as we approach autumn, the weather has begun to turn.
But the Carlisle experiment was a response to too much time spent in pubs, and concern that excessive alcohol consumption would lead to a loss of productivity amongst munitions workers. Nationalisation was proposed to regulate and limit consumption.
It is (nearly) the opposite effect that is now needed. Despite the great efforts of certain pub chains, no two London pubs are quite alike. What works for one will not work for another. Now is a time for devolution, not centralisation.
Management must be trusted to experiment, and to pursue policies that suit local needs. Public policy must enable, not constrain, change. This will be challenging. Central London in particular is home to a range of different uses, and different needs must be balanced. Closing roads to traffic may make deliveries more complex, for example. Outdoor operation may generate more noise, affecting nearby residents. But where possible, pubs and other hospitality businesses must be enabled to continue to operate outdoors, with appropriate provisions made for the winter months, if they are to survive. Flexibility will be key, for both publicans and policymakers.
London’s publicans, owners and local government all have a lot on their plate right now. But there can be no better opportunity to reconsider their role. Both the capital’s public and private sector must work together to ensure that the return to trading leads to a renaissance, rather than closing time, for London’s iconic public houses.