Britain’s pubs are in peril. In 1982, there were almost 68,000 pubs in the UK; today there are fewer than 55,000. They continue to close at a rate of 31 a week.
Pubs in the suburbs are said to be worst affected, with three per cent of all suburban pubs having closed in the past six months alone. A report by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) blames the closures on lax planning regulations that allow pubs to be bought and converted into other kinds of businesses without having to seek permission from the local council. CAMRA’s answer is to call for more planning regulations that would make it difficult to convert your favourite boozer into a Tesco Metro. Publicans have blamed cheap supermarket booze for eating into their revenues and have backed calls for minimum pricing to make drinking at home less attractive. There are no doubt many other factors at work. The ubiquity of mobile phones, for one, makes it easier to arrange a meeting with a friend at short notice, which means the idea of being the ‘regular’ who pops into a ‘local’ unannounced in the hope of bumping into someone one knows is becoming a thing of the past.
Further regulation, however, is not the answer. In fact, as demonstrated by their enthusiastic support for the smoking ban, CAMRA has failed to see that regulations are one of the main things that are killing pubs. Stricter planning laws would do little to address the underlying reasons why pubs are closing. After all, if pubs were drawing the crowds they needed to be viable, why would they be selling up in the first place? Rising rents have been cited as a cause, but the businesses lining up to take over pub premises don’t seem to have a problem paying them.
Pub culture is under threat, but not by greedy property developers desperate to turn every suburban highstreet into a row of Costa Coffees. Rather, the threat comes from the degradation of public life, a process nudged along by a state that disapproves of our habits.
Many of the activities that traditionally happened in public, and in pubs in particular, now happen behind closed doors and online. The pub was once the forum for gossiping, meeting new friends and partners and arguing about politics. All of these activities now largely take place on social media, if they take place at all. Peoples’ over-reliance on social media to conduct their social lives is a symptom, not a cause, of the degradation of public life – on its own, social media would not be keeping people from their pints. But it is on the internet that society’s atomisation, our withdrawal from public life, can be seen mostly clearly, whether it be those who prefer to record and post videos of tragic events online rather than running to help, or those who think political activism is best conducted entirely on Twitter. Society increasingly prefers to be at one remove from what is going on ‘out there’.