Stats recently published in the Telegraph show that the number of pubs in Britain has declined by more than 10 per cent in the past decade. By the end of the year, it is forecasted that there will be just 52,000 pubs in the UK compared with 61,000 a decade ago.
So why should we be worried? The answer has nothing to do with that sentimental bollocks about protecting traditional english culture. Nor is it about maintaining an abundance of places to get hammered. Rather it is because pubs represent one of the most important sources of public space for communities throughout this country.
An obvious point I might begin by making is that Britain – notwithstanding the current weather – is a cold and wet country. People need and want places outside the home where they can meet and converse, and by and large they want those places to be sheltered from the elements. In this sense pubs -as places where you can simply meet, relax and speak in the company of others – are an almost unique resource. Unlike London restraunts, you don’t have to pay silly money for the luxury of sitting there until your table is very assertively cleared. If you so wish, a 3 quid pint will get you through to closing time.
But the role of pubs – communal and cultural – is so much greater than this. Where do you think music comes from? Believe it or not, not many rockstars begin by playing at the 02. Day in day out, the backrooms or basements rooms of our public houses will be hosting open mic nights and smaller gigs. There will be niche audiences listening to the kind of music that doesnt get airplay on mtv. There will be comedy. There will be activists like us, who need a warm, cheap and convenient place for their public meetings.
In a privatised but squashed together metropolis like london, we get a great deal simply from pubs existing. They are good for us individuals and they are good for our culture. But as a society we do not show them a lot of love. Notwithstanding the very partial relaxation of Britain’s absurd liscensing laws, the Labour government’s policy over the past decade has basically been anti-pub. The ban on smoking combined with repeated above-inflation increases in the beer tax have made it increasingly difficult for pubs to survive, and to continue providing these crucial communal spaces. It is my opinion that the government does not simply need to moderate its policy. Instead what we need is an about turn. Instead of seeing pubs primarily in terms of the social ills with which they are (dubiously) associated, public policy should be premised on the idea that pubs are a social and cultural good. Policy makers should be concerned with ensuring that pubs survive and flourish.