The British pub is as much a part of the fabric of the United Kingdom as fish and chips and the queen, but each year hundreds close their doors for good. The reasons include the high price of beer, more people drinking at home and rising land prices.
Now — in an apparent first — the London borough of Wandsworth has designated 120 pubs for protection, requiring owners who want to transform them into apartments or supermarkets to get local government approval first.
Chris Cox has been watching pubs disappear in Wandsworth since the 1990s, and thinks the new regulation is great. Cox, who’s just polished off a lager at the Falcon, one of the protected venues, says pubs provide far more to this nation than just beer and atmosphere.
“A pub creates community,” says Cox, who works in ergonomics and has lived in Wandsworth for more than three decades.
At a pub, he says, you develop a relationship with other patrons and the staff, who keep tabs on you: “If they don’t see you, they will ask questions — ‘I wonder where he is?’ And you end up with a supporting network.”
Jonathan Cook, deputy leader of the Wandsworth Council, says one of the big reasons pubs are closing in this borough south of the Thames is because of the city’s real estate boom. For some pub owners, it makes more economic sense to sell to a buyer who wants to build a mini-supermarket or apartments.
“What we’re saying is, ‘Well, hang on a minute — we have an interest here as well. The community values the pub and you’ve got to factor that into the equation,'” says Cook.
Shuttered pubs litter Wandsworth. The door to the old Ram Brewery is sealed in concrete. Aluminum sheets cover the windows of the Prince of Wales. In 1992, there were 67,800 public houses in the United Kingdom, according to the British Beer and Pub Association; by 2014, the association estimates that number had dropped by a quarter to 51,900. During the same period, the country’s population increased by more than 10 percent.
The association blames changing tastes, including the growth in wine drinking, and high taxes for boosting beer prices. But the organization, which represents major brewers and pub-owning companies, opposes Wandsworth’s solution.
“This can create a certain amount of uncertainty for all businesses in the pub sector,” said Neil Williams, a spokesman for the association. “It makes it very difficult for a pub operator to sell on a venue.”
Cook, the Wandsworth councilman, says the 120 pubs the borough has designated for protection are all thriving businesses. He emphasized that Wandsworth is not interested in propping up failing enterprises, but doesn’t want to see any more valued venues sold off for other uses without public input.
Unlike the British Beer and Pub Association, David Law, who leases and runs the Eagle Ale House, thinks Wandsworth’s new regulation is crucial for protecting pubs. In fact, he hopes other jurisdictions across the country adopt Wandsworth’s idea and it goes national.
“We protect our museums, our art galleries and our libraries,” says Law. “A pub is a very big institution in the U.K. So I would argue that we need to be helping them and make them flourishing. We don’t need to lose any more.”