A new film by Jon Yeomans looks at the plight of London's pubs. Here he discusses their dwindling numbers.
London's pubs are under threat, although you may not believe it. Walking the streets of central London, you'll pass a public house on almost every corner — and most of them are filled to the rafters.
Yet London has lost a quarter of its pubs since 2001 — a fall of 1,220, to around 3,615. London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, declared himself 'shocked' by the statistics earlier this year, noting:
From traditional workingmen’s clubs to cutting-edge micro-breweries, London’s locals are as diverse and eclectic as the people who frequent them.
Much of the decline has occurred in the less affluent outer boroughs. While pubs in central London enjoy a steady trade from tourists and office workers, the backstreet boozers that serviced generations of working-class Londoners are becoming an endangered species.
All of London's boroughs except one recorded a fall in pubs between 2001-16 — with two of them (Barking & Dagenham and Newham) losing more than half. And this came despite the capital adding around a million people to its population.
The reasons for this are as diverse as the pubs themselves. It is not a London-only phenomenon, but the capital does have a particularly acute problem: soaring property prices mean that pubs are usually more valuable when they are converted into flats, or knocked down altogether.
The smoking ban of 2007, plus a long-term trend towards Britons drinking less alcohol, haven't helped pub numbers. Most significantly, perhaps, Londoners will simply say it's too expensive to drink in the pub. Rising
costs — from taxes and wages to beer prices — make it hard for publicans to earn a crust, even when
they're charging you £5.50 a pint.
Ripping out the bar
In 2013, my friend and I set out to make a documentary, Ripping Out the Bar, about pubs — an idea hatched (where else?) in a south London pub. We begged, borrowed and (when we had no other choice) rented cameras to go and stick our noses into the very private world of the public house.
Our quest led us to Hackney — ironically the only London borough where pub numbers have increased in the past 15 years (though by some estimates they have fallen by half over the last three decades).
We followed campaigners fighting to reopen the Chesham Arms, the very definition of a backstreet pub, which has been tucked away at the centre of a Victorian street for more than 150 years.
Against the odds (spoiler!), the campaigners won their three-year struggle. The Chesham reopened and is now a thriving community pub, attracting people from far and wide despite the fact it isn't on a main road or in a town centre.
Indeed not all pubs that close shut for good — though they rarely return in the same guise; it is often more profitable to run a gastropub or restaurant than a beer-led pub.
London isn't about to lose all its pubs. But the trend is only going one way. And it is the outer boroughs that have the most to lose.
You may not strike up a conversation with the stranger next to you at the bar, but the option is always there. And with our suburbs becoming ever more like dormitories, and communities seemingly more insular and divided than ever, there is still a value in having place where people can meet under one roof. Even if you have to nurse that £5.50 pint.
Jon Yeomans is a journalist. Ripping Out the Bar, a 30 minute documentary about pubs, screens at the Hackney Archives in Dalston on 23 September 2017 and will be published online thereafter. Images by the author, except for the Barbican and closed Prince Albert, by M@.