1. Why are pubs disappearing in London?

The future of London’s pubs

1. Why are pubs disappearing in London?

“Change your hearts, or you will lose your Inns, and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves – for you will have lost the last of England.”
Hilaire Belloc, 1912

In response to the alarming rate of pub closures in London, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan made the issue a priority, describing the new London Plan as ‘the most pro-pub planning strategy the capital has ever seen’, establishing a ‘Culture at Risk’ office, and conducting an annual ‘pubs audit’ to measure progress. 4

The exceptionally high closure rate of 2016/17 has since calmed. The following year was described as a ‘year of stability’, with a small increase in numbers overall, and growth in some (mainly inner London) boroughs. 5 But many boroughs saw a further reduction in numbers. And we still don’t fully understand why so many pubs were closing, and therefore what can be done to help.

Whilst closures are frequent, employment in London’s pubs has actually increased since 2001, with a rise in the number of large establishments compensating for the rapid decline in ‘small’ pubs (those with 10 employees or less). There is also significant variation in the borough-to-borough picture – some have seen an increase in numbers, whereas others have seen a sharp decline. The ONS has found that, nationally, ‘Outer City areas’ have seen the biggest declines in pub numbers, with Barking and Dagenham, and Newham highlighted as national examples. 6 However, the picture across London is nuanced, and a clear inner/outer London pattern is actually quite difficult to discern.

The decline in the number of pubs is a national trend but it appears to be particularly acute in the capital. Data tracking the reasons for pub closures listed nearly half of such closures as occurring due to demolition or for ‘unknown’ reasons. And what happens to these pubs post-demolition is not recorded. 7

Our roundtable participants noted that some of the issues facing pubs in the capital are long-term, systemic and shared with the rest of the UK. From taxation and business rate valuations, to the smoking ban and supermarket pricing, pubs across the country have been facing a combination of gradual economic and social changes and sudden, dramatic legal changes that have made it increasingly difficult to operate.

But there are London-specific factors too. Some closures are part of a longer-term decline in the capital’s high streets, a trend hugely accelerated by coronavirus, but already underway beforehand. Poor lighting and public realm can be a factor in making high streets unattractive or unsafe at night, driving footfall down, and incorporating residential properties into high streets can complicate their successful night-time functioning as social spaces.

London urgently needs more housing, but new developments can impact on the ability of pubs to operate successfully, with noise and nuisance complaints more likely even without operating late at night, though the Mayor’s ‘Agent of Change’ policy, which makes the developer of new housing rather than pub operators responsible for any soundproofing or other mitigating measures required, is intended to reduce the risk posed by such complaints.

Speculative purchase by developers seeking to convert pubs into flats remains one of the greatest threats to pubs in London. Land values are high, and particularly so for residential development. Many pubs are simply worth more as flats. In 2011, the Parr’s Head pub in Camden was bought for £500,000, sold on for £1.3 million once planning permission was granted for residential conversion, and eventually fetched £3 million as six separate flats. 8

Changes to the planning system have since made it more difficult to convert a viable pub into residential units, including through limiting ‘permitted development rights (which enable redevelopment without full planning permission) and enabling stronger protection for designated ‘assets of community value’. Many local authorities have also sought to protect pubs in their local plans, unless the business can be proved to be unviable.

Enforcement has been strengthened too. In 2021, it was confirmed that the owners of The Antelope pub in Leyton were to be forced to reverse work done to the building to convert it from a public house to 14 studio flats and a shop. The work had not received planning permission and the Planning Inspectorate found that the owners attempts to preserve the pub before conversion had been inadequate. 9 Whilst The Antelope demonstrates that the system can intervene to save pubs, it also demonstrates the powerful incentives that London’s high land values generate for owners.

Our roundtable participants felt that the viability test for pubs was potentially helpful, but the mechanisms for testing the viability of a pub are not felt to be strong enough. Ultimately, it is the premises rather than the occupier that are tested. Pubs can be closed where another owner could potentially have made a success of them, and there is a feeling that owners can deliberately run down a pub in order to make it appear ‘unviable’.

The ability to designate pubs as ‘Assets of Community Value’ is also welcome, but ultimately the protections this provides – principally, the right for communities or local authorities to purchase pubs that have been given this designation – are felt to be relatively toothless. Taking a pub into community ownership is costly and extremely financially risky, and new pubs are especially vulnerable to short-term shocks.

Interviewees also highlighted the importance of ownership issues. Pub companies can protect against the risks involved in owning a pub by owning several: this is also true of small chains. But ‘tied’ pubs (where owners require operators to buy at least some of their beer from a particular brewery or pub company) can be extremely difficult to run and make viable. And the sheer scale of the big pub companies can mean that ownership is remote from the neighbourhood which a pub operates in, and therefore lacks understanding of local need and demand. Just as worryingly, this gap between owner and operator appears to be growing.

London’s changing demographics, and generational changes in how people like to spend their leisure time, also mean that the capital’s pubs have to be much more diverse in their offering, and react to changing local needs and opportunities, if they are to survive.