The Weird Economics Behind London's Disappearing Pubs
Even if you're not much of a drinker, London’s pubs are places of real beauty. With their wrought iron signs, blown and stained glass windows, and acres of tobacco-colored wood, they're among the best bits of traditional vernacular architecture the city has.
Despite Britain's reputation as a home for rowdy drinkers, London pubs can also be very welcoming, with the best ones stretching their often early closing times with quasi-legal after-hours lock-ins.
In recent years, however, Londoners are being locked out, not in. Over the past decade, 1,300 London pubs have emptied their cellars and wiped down their tables for the last time. It's not just obscure, unloved bars that are dying. This winter, two well-known historic pubs, both open for over a century apiece, will likely be turned into private housing. One is the Old White Bear, a red-brick building hidden away in village-like Hampstead, a former spa town swallowed up by Victorian London. The other, just down the hill, is The Star, an inn dating back to the 1820s with a wood-lined interior (featured in this 1980s pop video) that makes drinking there feel rather like sitting inside a whiskey-soaked violin.
Lying at the heart of some of Britain’s most expensive neighborhoods, these pubs were always sitting ducks for developers. But it’s not only the comet-like rise of London residential property values that is causing the disappearances. While the smoking ban and high beer taxes haven’t helped, it’s actually the pub industry's tough practices that are giving local boozers the greatest problems.
The Princess Louise Pub. Image courtesy of Flickr user Matthew Black.
Under the British system, the pub "landlord" (in British pub terminology, this actually means a manager that rents a premises, rather than an owner) must buy their booze from the company they rent the pub from. With no competition, the prices they pay are generally inflated, meaning that even if landlords trim their profit margins, beer still comes out pricier than it otherwise needs to be. While pub companies turn a profit, individual landlords are pushed to the wall. The pub companies then sell off under-performing premises, even though pubs wouldn't actually be unsustainable if landlords got a better deal.
Admittedly, this pressure has thinned out some dead wood. Not uncommonly, I notice bottled glass windows (a telltale sign of a former pub) on some far flung London private house and wonder how such a backwater could have ever sustained a bar. But now the lure of residential property profits is so great that not even landmark pubs are safe from the wave of closures. Indeed, the high ceilings and quirky historic fixtures of old pubs in general are just the sort of thing that make property speculators drool. Pub conversions are all over London now – you can find them for sale, for rent, even on Airbnb – and their renters and buyers generally get a pretty nice apartment. Still, a community without a pub is a community that has been hollowed out, as without some local place to socialize, streets become dormitories rather than destinations.
Thankfully, there have been some official steps to recognize how valuable pubs are to the neighborhoods they serve. Since April, the London mayor's planning guidance to local borough councils has asked them to list them as "community assets," the transformation of which requires far tighter planning procedures.
So far, over 100 London pubs have been protected this way. One pub in Southeast London has even been bought by its local community and re-opened as a co-operative. This grassroots movement to protect and cherish local drinking places may help stem the tide of closures. Without a better deal for pub landlords, however, any London pub that isn't packing customers in will always be walking a fine line.