“It is not just hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake here, or the billions of pounds contributed to GDP. The plight of pubs feels important because as well as an industry, pubs are part of our identity… Absurd as it may sound, being able to find a neighbourhood pub feels to me like something close to a birth right as a British citizen. If the AA is the fourth emergency service then, for many of us, pubs are the fifth…”
Clare Foges, 2020
COVID-19 has hit the hospitality sector exceptionally hard, and London’s pubs now find themselves in a precarious situation. At the same time, recovery from the pandemic is prompting a re-appraisal of how we live, and a renewed focus on the value of shared social spaces. Pubs are not just places for the consumption of alcohol, but they are places where communities come together. They are an important part of the social fabric of the city, combatting loneliness and building social capital.
Below, we outline some of the principal findings and ideas that arose in our roundtable and the research that informed it.
The point of pubs
- Pubs provide an important social role and an ever-widening range of functions. Good quality food, indoor sport and games, theatre, cinema, exercise and even new skills training can be accessed in the modern London pub. Whilst the traditional ‘local’ does still exist in the capital, and plays an important social role, many new pubs are also becoming ever more inclusive and differentiated spaces, with an offering that is less exclusively male-centred. This is something to be celebrated.
- Having a more diverse offering, and a more inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, tends to improve a pub’s chances of survival. But each London pub’s offer must be carefully tailored to the needs and interests of its specific locality or the community that uses it.
- This makes it all the more important that the pub is owned and/or operated by someone who knows the clientele, and has the resources and the freedom to make decisions that work for that clientele, as well as opening the pub up to new visitors.
- The aftermath of the current pandemic could see pubs across the capital swept up by the largest pubcos and chains, and potentially lose what makes them great. Pubs, like government, work best when power and responsibility is devolved to as local a level as possible. It is in the interests of big chains, as much local owner-operators, to understand this.
Principles for policymakers
- London’s pubs should be viewed and treated as vital social infrastructure, and protected wherever possible. Both London-wide government and the boroughs have made huge strides in actively recognising the importance of the capital’s pubs to Londoners with additional protections, but there is more that can be done.
- Finding ways to perform more in-depth assessments of potential viability before permitting change of use or demolition is important – especially given the pandemic and the wave of pub businesses in trouble that seems likely to follow.
- In 2017, Permitted Development Rights were removed from pubs in the UK, meaning that it was no longer possible to change uses without applying for planning permission. This protection should be sustained, so that proper consideration can be given to pubs’ viability.
- The new London Plan also highlights the ‘Agent of Change’ principle, shifting responsibility for mitigating the effects of existing noise and other nuisances to developers moving in, is another extremely positive move that must be enforced and applied.
London and national government could and should do more to assist community groups wishing to purchase under-threat pubs:
- The ‘community right to bid’ could be made a ‘community right to buy’, with grant subsidy provided to community bids, reflecting the importance of pubs to their communities. The 2021 Budget’s announcement of a £150 million Community Ownership Fund is a welcome step towards this, though the sums available may have a more limited impact in areas of high property values.
- Alternatively, legislation could require a pub to be sold to community groups at a discount if it sits vacant for an unreasonable period of time.
- Ultimately, if pubs are to be recognised as a crucial part of the social fabric of the city, then mechanisms must be found for providing government-backed loans or other forms of finance to community groups wishing to buy (but not necessarily run) their under-threat pub. Public sector loan (e.g. through the Public Works Loans Board) are one avenue. A London-wide centrally-held ‘pot’ of funds made available for community ownership schemes, perhaps a ‘London Community Pubs Corporation’, could help to provide loans quickly and when needed.
- Developers may also be persuaded of the benefits of having a successful community-run pub as a shared social space near to or on future residential developments. In London, this could provide another source of potential loan funding to back community ownership.
- Government could also help by playing a ‘matchmaking’ role, helping to connect community groups that are seeking to take ownership of their under-threat pub but do not feel able to run it to potential tenants who would be able to do so.