Londoners mainly use their pubs to socialise with friends, family and colleagues. Many pubs serve their local communities, providing a social space for patrons to interact. Others serve non-geographical communities brought together by shared interest, from fans of particular football teams to LGBTQ+ groups, vegans, theatre fans and those with pets. Pubs theatres have a long tradition. 14 Live music has also been a longstanding offering, albeit one that has been increasingly under threat in recent years. 15
But in a competitive marketplace, many London pubs have broadened their offer further. This is often intended to make better use of space. But in doing so, their role in serving their community has also in many cases been enhanced. Some offer parent-and-baby lectures for new parents. 16 Life drawing classes, parent-and-baby cinema, and yoga sessions can now be taken in pubs. 17 Glass blowing and knitting sessions are amongst the more creative, and unusual, pub-based offerings. 18 The pandemic has even seen some pubs advertise themselves as flexible office spaces for remote workers, providing a social atmosphere for otherwise isolated home workers seeking a change of scenery. 19
But some pubs simply offer a recognisable face and a friendly ear for their regulars. This is a much under-appreciated social role, and hugely important to some Londoners, particularly older Londoners. Pubs help to combat loneliness. And a 2016 survey found that one in five adults in relationships met their partners in pubs: nearly a third said that their local pub was a good venue for a first date. 20 Some pubs provide vital gathering places for marginalised groups, and can be places where relevant information is shared and messages communicated to specific communities.
Roundtable participants noted that the ‘local’ still meant something in London. Whilst choice means less loyalty to a single ‘local’ in some areas, this is far from the case in all of the capital’s neighbourhoods. Many London pubs do still play an important social role in connecting local communities through one shared space. And there are certainly a great number of London pubs that have much in common with village pubs, serving London’s numerous ‘village’ neighbourhoods. This can be seen in the hyper-local charities that many pubs collect for, for example. Pubs remain vital social infrastructure in many places in London, just as elsewhere, even though this value is not always reflected in the economic and planning policies that affect them.
The balance between serving existing, local communities, and enticing newcomers and those from outside the immediate locality (or ‘community of interest’) can be challenging for publicans, but it is attainable and important if a pub is to succeed. This is why it is so important that operators are trusted by owners to make decisions that suit their particular circumstances. Space is a limited and precious resource in the capital, and thinking about a pub’s space creatively can yield great results. Being bold and thinking from first principles was seen by interviewees to be wise advice.
Many of the services, events and entertainment mentioned above are seen as ways to ensure viability but also to further bring people together and foster a sense of community. Libraries and computer literacy courses can be run from pubs. There were examples of community pubs with kitchens hosting food banks and organising ‘meals on wheels’ for those in need during the pandemic. This was particularly true of community-owned/community-run pubs – which are dealt with next.