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Raise a glass to London’s locals: Inside the battle to save the capital’s pubs

The bars are dry, and landlords need a plan — fast. David Ellis reports on the fight to save the city’s beloved boozers

<p>Hanging on: brewery bosses say they need Government to act fast </p>

Hanging on: brewery bosses say they need Government to act fast

/ Christian Adams
By @dvh_ellis
17 February 2021

he country is pining for its pubs. Reports of handy drinkers building their own (hyper) locals in back gardens and basements are becoming newspaper staples — there have been four stories in the past week alone — while Google searches for “pubs reopen UK” have bolted 300 per cent since the weekend. “Every single conversation I have starts with: when are the pubs back?” says The Farrier’s George Hartshorn, who’s been trying to open Camden Market’s first pub since the November lockdown. In other words, we’re all craving the comfort and cheer of our local. This is how that might pan out.

The pressure is on

Though the pub industry won’t yet be draining the last of its barrels and calling it a day, most businesses are at breaking point. It’s no overstatement to say the future of the pub depends on how the Government chooses to ease lockdown. The rumours so far: opening soon, but without alcohol (almost certainly nonsense); we’ll be in pub gardens by Easter (possible: in Newcastle this weekend the Prime Minister said he was “optimistic”, but 60 per cent of places would stay shut if they can’t open indoors too); tiers to be scrapped (unclear); mentioning scotch eggs to come with 20-year jail term (if only). There said to be talk among councils that mid-May is the date Government has in mind, though there’s no word on what restrictions will be in place. The simple truth is that nothing will be confirmed until February 22, when plans will be announced for what the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) call a “gradual and phased approach towards easing the restrictions in a sustainable way”.

Among many brewery bosses and landlords, there is a strong feeling this can’t be too gradual or too phased in. This is an industry in disarray: an estimated 87 million pints have been thrown away since the pandemic took hold, worth some £331 million, while beer sales plummeted at the cost of £7.8 billion, according to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA). Trade research body CGA reported that 6,000 licensed premises shut last year, an estimated 2,000 of those pubs. The news is acutely cruel given the timing: after a decade of decline, in 2019 pubs were at their healthiest for years, with the number of boozers finally up. Now they fear being overlooked. A meeting last week between the industry’s biggest figures, MP Paul Scully and the BEIS broke down: in it, a “roadmap for recovery” by the BBPA,which set out a timeline for reopening towards the end of March, was discussed — or ignored, depending on who you believe. The BEIS declined to comment, but pub bosses say they were left “appalled” by the Government’s lack of interest, especially in light of the R number being at its lowest since last July.

“We are in a battle with Government to save the Great British pub,” says Young’s chief executive Patrick Dardis. “They just don’t seem to want to engage, which is absolutely alarming. They’re just playing politics under the guise of consultations.” Simon Emeny, chief executive of Fuller’s, agrees. “They’re very non-committal, and very, very vague about what the plans will be. We need the Government to see the bigger picture here,” he says.

Food. Bars. Going out. Delivered weekly

Acting swiftly, then, means everything. Dardis points out that Young’s is“burning cash at around five million a month” — furlough is not free for businesses, and countless costs still come in even as a place is closed. Local landlords are no better off. Ben Caudell, who owns Kentish Town’s Rose and Crown, points out he’s still paying full rent.

The Government just don’t seem to want to engage, which is absolutely alarming

“We are in a massive financial hole,” adds Tamra Gray, landlady of The King’s Arms in Tooley Street. But, Gray says, this year has shown just how much the place means to its regulars, which has hardened her resolve to continue. “I will try everything to keep it going. I think it’s become even more of an emotional project than it was before.”

That’s the happy thing; Gray is typical of landlords and this year has made it clearer than ever what pubs mean to people, and what people mean to pubs. “It’s been really touching. When you actually see the regulars making concerted efforts to support us, it’s pretty amazing,” she says. Emeny agrees. “People are missing their friends, their families, their communities. They’re even missing their work colleagues. And the pub is the thing that binds all of those four things together,” he says. “The pub is unique to Britain, it’s integral to our culture, and it’s integral to our happiness.” Pubs, then, are being fought for.

Christian Adams

The future is bright (ish)

Uncertainty may cloud reopening dates, but there are reasons to be cheerful. For one thing, despite the chilling clasp of piling debts, pubs may even emerge better than we remember them. Some changes will be cosmetic — Emeny and Dardis say they’ve taken advantage of their closed sites to scrub up any tired spots— but much of it will come in how places operate and what they offer. On Tooley Street, general manager Jade Dowsett-Roberts says during the last year they’ve become closer to their community and are adapting accordingly. “One thing we noticed is that, ordering from their table on the website, people were trying new stuff because they were able to do it easily — ‘oooh, there’s that gin, there’s that whisky!’ We took heed of that, put some cocktails on the system and they were flying out. They’ll definitely stay. We’ve got some artistic regulars here, so we’d love to do a comedy night. Someone came in and their friend was a filmographer so maybe there’s something there too. People are coming together and going: ‘You know what? We’ve got a community and it starts in the pub’, and we want to do things for them.”

Heath Ball, who runs Highgate’s The Red Lion and Sun, says he’s “starting to feel like the Del Boy of pubs” after pivoting so much; last week was Chinese takeaway, over Christmas came “a German-style chalet”, and now the bottle shed is a crêperie. But, he adds, “we will definitely carry on the takeaway business. We saw after the last lockdown there was still a demand for takeaways. I plan to keep that going.”

We might ban conversations about the virus, with a swear jar. A quid for every time it’s mentioned.

Most seem sure of long term changes. Sanitising is a given, and the majority expect masks and in-app ordering to stay — even if leaning on the bar won’t go (“an integral part of the experience,” says Emeny). Cash is dead. Pre-booking will vary: bigger boozers will keep it but smaller spots are likely to quietly drop it when allowed: in Kentish Town, Caudell says he lost the most money when open under restrictions, citing distanced groups of twos and threes pressing capacity to a minimum. Everywhere is anticipating that al-fresco drinking will be on the up —Young’s and Fuller’s have both invested in their gardens, and the other chains are likely to have followed suit.

There may even be a few new openings. Young’s has 10 sites in the works, and independents are seizing their chance too. Empty sites mean low(er) rents and opportunities. In Camden Market, The Farrier will launch whenever it can and Hartshorn says the quiet streets helped with the build. Like many other pubs now, the business is set to lean heavily on food to make money. This isn’t the end of wet pubs though: once Dardis opens his new sites, he’s working on a dream, “going back to the pubs of old, with both a beautifully done lounge bar and what used to be called a saloon bar that’s purely about being a great environment for drinks. I certainly wouldn’t write off a great, well-invested bar.”

Provided the Government plays fair — at least, as the pubs see it — there is optimism in the air. Places are expecting to be heaving, citing pre-Christmas trade as evidence of a city all but banging down pub doors. Wetherspoons’ boss Tim Martin announced this week he aims to bring back all 37,000 of his staff, a vote of confidence.

In the meantime, places will keep coming up with new ways to claw back a little lost cash. “We might ban conversations about the virus, with a swear jar,” says Gray. “A quid for every time it’s mentioned.” Now there’s a million-dollar idea.