Pubs: the social wing of the heritage industry?

Jason Smith

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Topics Politics

With pubs closing all over the UK, it’s hardly surprising people that fans of the boozer are using their professional knowledge to come up with innovative ways of trying to save their favourite local. David Knight, an architect teaching at Kingston University, worked with his students to assess the cultural worth of six London pubs and concluded that using UNESCO’s ‘Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage’ is the way forward.

At a meeting organised by the Architectural Foundation last month, Knight described pubs as shared, negotiated places that occupy a vital middle ground between the home and the public realm. Furthermore, they are important community spaces that have intangible meaning. While I agree that the cultural fabric of London would become less textured without pubs, is that sufficient reason to safeguard them?

Pubs in the past were vibrant cultural spaces because people used them. While people still use pubs, the packed bars all over central London on most weekday evenings are very different to the style of pub Knight wants to save. Many of the many new office/housing/shopping developments around London contain bars and restaurants; they’re part of the ‘vibe’ of the new space being created. These bars are criticised for being bland, overly branded, more about food than alcohol, lacking atmosphere, and generally missing the true essence of a traditional pub. But they might also be busy with punters, while the traditional pub opposite might contain three men and a dog. Which raises the question: who would UNESCO be saving these pubs for?

Knight also betrays his architect’s eye when it comes to the things about pubs he would like to save: central, circular bars, upstairs function rooms, and pianos. All three of these disappeared from most pubs during re-developments in the 1960s, 70s and 80s as a consequence of changing drinking habits – which were themselves a consequence of postwar affluence – and from the 1980s onwards due to increased regulation of public spaces. For example, the local pub would once have been a natural choice for a wedding reception. How many people today would have their wedding reception in a function room above a pub?

I have written elsewhere on spiked about the reasons I think pubs are closing: in particular, the rise of ‘pubcos’, which value pubs as real estate rather than trading businesses, the restrictions on smoking, and the decline of the pub as an alternative living room. The problem with Knight’s idea is that in trying to insulate and protect culture from the consequences of change, he could speed up the demise of the pubs he wishes to protect.

Faced with a pub regulated to appeal to an audience whose expectations are frozen in the 1960s (an audience presumably of Downton Abbey-watching tourists), any prospective pub landlord would go nowhere near the place. It would be impossible to run a business faced with such constraints on your creative imagination. Pubs would become another aspect of the heritage industry, quickly dependent on funding designed to protect the obsolete.

Architects are adept at using planning processes, finding loopholes and turning them to their advantage. They get the building they want through professional creativity and technical know-how. However, what is culturally significant about pubs is not the building or fixtures and fittings, however attractive and worth saving these may be, but the people inside. If UNESCO decides it wants to preserve pubs as they were, it would have re-create the communities, the postwar optimism and the expectations of the pre-package holiday generations that used them.

Jason Smith is a member of the Battle of Ideas organising committee. The decline of the British boozer is the topic of the debate Last orders: calling time on the pub at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 20 October.

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Topics Politics

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