Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 2014
We still like the idea of pubs, but are increasingly falling out of love with the reality
IN THE 1960s, there was a wave of railway branch line closures stemming from the notorious “Beeching Axe”, which often came up against passionate opposition. But it was noticeable that the commemorative “last trains” often carried more passengers than the line had done in the whole of the previous month. Many people had a lingering fondness for the idea of rural branch line railways, but they had fallen out of love with the reality. Much the same is happening with pubs. There are endless campaigns to “save the Red Lion from evil property developers”, and broadsheet newspaper articles bewailing the decline of the pub, but the harsh truth is that people in general are going to them less and less often.
Exactly the same can be said of many other cherished institutions – libraries, post offices, churches, traditional butchers, local bank branches, independent corner shops, even High Streets in general. The chattering classes embrace them in theory, but shun them in practice. While we love to complain about the decline of our institutions, it seems that we want someone else to keep them open for us. You get the impression many people want large swathes of the country to become some kind of Merrie England theme park kept open for their benefit and populated by cheeky Cockneys and gurning yokels, while they sit at home waiting for the Ocado delivery which they will pay for by mobile phone banking.
“Use it or lose it” is a glib phrase that is too often casually used without considering the implications. In practice, few of us are likely to be able to make any difference to the success or failure of businesses through our own custom alone, and it’s not reasonable to expect people to inconvenience themselves out of a sense of principle. As far as businesses go, people vote with their feet, and sadly they have increasingly voted against pubs.
In response to this, there have been calls for pubs to be given greater legal protection. Councils can designate them as Assets of Community Value, so local communities have first refusal if they are put up for sale, and it has been suggested that planning permission should be required to convert pubs into shops. However, all the planning controls in the world won’t save a single pub if the underlying demand is no longer there, and in practice the result of these well-meaning initiatives is often likely to be that closed pubs remain blighted and derelict for longer until they can be redeveloped.
On the other hand, it is now easier than it has been for a hundred years to open new pubs and bars. Prosperous city suburbs such as Chorlton and Didsbury have seen them springing up all over the place, Wetherspoon’s have converted many former shops, micropubs are gaining an increasing foothold and Marston’s and Greene King are building brand-new dining pubs on retail parks. Where the demand exists, new establishments will appear to meet it and, if you had to jump through planning hoops to convert a little bar back into a wool shop, you might be less willing to open the bar in the first place.
If pubs are buildings of particular architectural merit, then there is everything to be said for doing our best to preserve them, and to find an alternative use if they really have no future as pubs. But, for the general run of pubs, it has to be recognised that social trends over the years have left many simply incapable of being run as viable businesses, and attempting to keep them on life support is an exercise in flogging dead horses. It would do much more for the future of pubs if half the effort devoted to planning issues was expended on countering the social and legislative changes that have reduced the demand for pubgoing.