Pubs have borne the brunt of this crisis; the ever changing guidance and social distancing rules have meant fewer punters and so, fewer takings. London’s pubs have been particularly hard hit. Business rate relief and the furlough scheme have helped, and VAT discounts and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ offered some limited help to pubs serving food. But for ‘wet-led’ pubs, particularly those in central London, the collapse of both tourism and commuting have meant that many have had a hard year.
Yet, long before lockdown, many of our pubs were already struggling. London lost more than a quarter of its pubs between 2001 and 2017, with more than one pub a week closing its doors in 2016/17, many being turned over to housing. The closure rate has slowed recently, but the aftermath of a year of on-and-off trade risks further closures for good. Furlough and other support schemes are set to come to an end soon, after which pubs might find themselves operating at extremely tight margins.
In recent years, pubs have diversified their offer to appeal to a wider range of people and stay afloat. Whereas live music and theatre have been longstanding offerings, some have sought to make better use of their space in the day to serve their communities such as through hosting parent-and-baby lectures for new parents, life drawing classes and yoga sessions. The pandemic has even seen some pubs advertise themselves as flexible office spaces for remote workers in need of a change of scenery. The social role that pubs play is often underappreciated, but it can be vital to bring local and non-geographic communities together.
Our research found that having a more diverse offering, and a more inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, tends to improve a pub’s chances of survival, so long as any changes are carefully tailored to the needs and interests of 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 them.
Sometimes community ownership is the best way to achieve this. However, the costs associated with buying an otherwise doomed pub have reduced take-up, with a few notable exceptions such as the Ivy House in Nunhead and the Antwerp Arms in Tottenham. And Londoners have choices: when one pub closes, there are often several more nearby that can take its place. There are alternative models however. The Tommy Flowers in Poplar, a new community pub with an arts focus, benefits from lottery funding and premises provided by social landlord Poplar HARCA, proving that different models can also work.
To help our pubs survive and thrive in the future, London and national government must do more to assist community groups wishing to purchase under-threat pubs. This may mean supporting a right to buy, not just a right to bid: the Community Ownership Fund is a welcome step towards this, although the funds available may have a more limited impact in areas like London with high property values. In addition, legislation could require a pub to be sold to community groups at a discount if it sits vacant for an unreasonable period of time. Finally, local authorities could play a ‘matchmaking’ role, helping to connect community groups to the tenants and managers who could run community-owned pubs. The government has puts its hands in its pockets to support pubs as much as possible through the crisis. Now it needs to trust communities to do the same.
Centre for London report The future of London’s pubs, can be read in full here.
The future of London’s pubs is the result of desk-based research alongside the findings of a roundtable event, held on 9 December 2020, and a series of adhoc interviews. The roundtable was supported by Power to Change and brought together publicans, practitioners and local government to think about what challenges and opportunities exist for London’s pubs, the broader community role of pubs, and what London’s pubs need to survive the pandemic and beyond.