What is the death of the British pub doing to our love lives?

A boarded up pub in Lewisham. Image: Getty.

An ex-boyfriend of mine had the habit of pointing out, every time we went down a certain south London road, that “that pub there” was where he had had his very first pint. I thought it was a funny thing to say, looking as wistfully as he did, because, goodness, he must have had hundreds of pints since. And yet that little pub stayed in his mind, powerfully enough to remind me, someone who had never even been inside it, that something as magical as a first pint had happened there. 

Recently I found myself going down that street once more, and looking at the fated pub. But the pub is no longer there: nothing is. The property is up for a new lease, the front not even looking like the pub that it was. The building has been literally whitewashed. An advert on Right Move from earlier this year suggests that, while the property is a former bar, “the landlord is willing to consider different usages.” Indeed, “its excellent size and prominence on the high street would make the property ideal for a variety of uses, subject to planning”.

Thus died yet another London watering-hole. 

The same ex used to tell me an amusing anecdote about how, in his younger days, a friend confronted him over a pint. In response to my ex’s sullenness the older man allegedly shouted, banging his hand on a table, “What you need is pussy!”, or something along those lines. The pub, once again, was the background to these displays of male affection. 

How many times, one wonders, did the pub play the stage for not just hypothetical cries for pussy, but very literal ones? To late night hook-ups and first dates? To awkward kisses and passionate coming-togethers and Sunday roasts with the missus? The first time that ex and I kissed was in a pub, a few good pints in. We exchanged many others – pints and kisses – in pubs in the subsequent years. I have since shared many more with other exes, but perhaps in fewer pubs. 

And here lies the crux of my worries: as our capital loses its public houses at an unprecedented rate, are we all hooking up a lot less?

According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) Britain is losing no less than 29 traditional pubs every week. Since 2001, London has lost a total of 25 per cent of its pubs. The boroughs of Newham and Barking & Dagenham alone have seen over half of their taverns disappear. CAMRA figures suggest that the total number of pubs in the capital has gone from nearly 5,000 to just over 3,600 in the last 15 years – an average loss of 81 pubs each year. 

Dating contributes a whopping £5.9bn to the British economy (Match.com, 2017), which raises the question: what is all this doing to the dating scene?

“I'm reluctant to go on dates I'm unsure about if it means blowing cash,” single man-about-town Tom Mellors confesses. He adds that the rise in alcohol costs has affected the frequency with which he dates: first dates only happen once a month now. 


He isn’t alone. South Londoner Simon Kelman too admits that “cost is a factor” when it comes to dating. “Renting and living alone in London isn’t cheap,” he adds.

Changing places

But it isn’t just the high costs of boozing that are pushing the pub out of the dating routine. CAMRA believes that poor regulation has allowed gentrification to obliterate our cities’ pubs. “Holes in the current planning system allow pubs to be sold off, demolished or converted to many other uses,” the group’s head of communications, Tom Stainer said in a statement. 

Local communities often need to come to the rescue of their beloved spots. The Elephant & Castle had thrived in the south London neighbourhood of the same name for 250 years, but closed in early 2015 after a violent incident lead to the loss of the establishment’s license. 

When estate agent Foxtons made a bid to the council to turn the venue into one of its branches, the community went into uproar. A months-long battle, including the temporary squatting of the pub by anti-gentrification activists, had a happy ending, with the venue being listed as a community asset and quirky pub chain Antic Collective taking over. 

A good thing too. I’ve never seen anyone suggest a date at an estate agent, yet.

“I work with a lot of pubs and there's definitely a change in how they operate,” public relations consultant Allie Abgarian tells me. “Due to the power of the internet and social media, people have infinitely more choice and they no longer want to settle. It's all about demand and if the demands aren't met, they can simply choose to go elsewhere.” 

In many parts of town, she notes, there are “plenty of 'hipster' venues – but only a small part of these actually survive past the first few years. They're very niche.”

It’s not just pubs that are at risk of gentrification. “The local underground public toilet closed opposite my flat and re opened as a gin bar,” says Kelman. (I’m pretty sure that offering to meet people in public toilets meant something other than coming across as hip on Tinder once.) 

It’s not that I am afraid that people have stopped drinking before mating. I had someone telling me recently that “coffee dates are for job interviews” – boozing is alive and well in this fine nation. It’s just that while our attitudes towards mass dating have become far more liberal in the age of Tinder, our decision making processes on who to date have turned more thrifty with the collapse of the pub. 

“Despite rising costs of alcohol and eating out there is more competition and new reasonably priced places or ‘deals’ constantly opening up. So I would never use the excuse of not being able to afford to go somewhere to not go on a date,” comments Kelman, who seems nonplussed about such dating dilemmas after five years of singling and mingling in the capital. “There are lots of places I can’t afford to go, I just look harder for the best of the ones I can afford.”

The sad reality seems to be that gentrification is not just murdering a type of establishment that has until now been part and parcel of British identity. The days of dating prolifically and carefree are drawing to a close at the same speed as our much esteemed pub.

 
 
 
 

To fix the housing crisis, we need to decide what success would look like

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Recent years have seen growing public and political recognition that there is a crisis in housing. This has led to a widening debate on the causes and potential solutions.

However, within this debate there has been little in the way of a consensus view of what constitutes the current housing crisis – or what a “crisis-free” housing system might look like. There seems little clear idea of any measurable goal. The nearest we have as a target to aim at has been a series of aspirational numbers for new-build homes, with limited clarity on what to expect if we were to hit those numbers.

Clarity about what success would look like is essential. Without a framework for what we need and want from housing, our ability to understand and fix it appropriately will be compromised. A lack of clarity also increases the risk of unintended consequences from misguided policy interventions.

The current housing debate is, to quote UCL’s Michael Edwards, “bedevilled by rival simplifications”. There are several, quite often competing explanations for why we have a housing crisis. For many it is our failure to build homes at the same rate as projected household formation. This failure might be assigned to the planning system, the greenbelt, housebuilder business models, the land market, or NIMBYs.

For others, the crisis is a result of falling interest rates, rising credit supply, low income growth, wealth and income inequality, tax incentives, or simply our fixation on house price growth. For some, there is no shortage of homes, rather a poor distribution. And for others there isn’t really a housing crisis.

Despite the apparent contradictions in this mix of positions, each of the arguments that support these various views may hold significant elements of truth. Housing is a complex and interconnected system within the economy and society. There is no simple single housing market: there are multiple markets defined by location, property type, tenure, and price. Therefore, there is no simple single housing crisis. Instead we have multiple overlapping issues affecting different parts of the country in different ways and to varying degrees.

There may be factors that influence all housing markets across the UK, indeed across much of the globe. There will be others that impact more locally and within specific housing sectors.

So, for instance, there is growing acceptance by many experts that the cost and availability of credit has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of increases in national house prices over the last twenty years.


But it is not the only factor. The growth in buy-to-let has contributed to the financialisation of housing, with homes increasingly thought of as an investment rather than a place for people to live. A lack of supply is predominantly an issue for London and its surrounds, but there are localised shortages elsewhere, particularly of specific types or tenure of homes.

Planning (including a lack of) and the land market limit the responsiveness of supply to rising demand. Housing is unevenly distributed, mostly across generations but also spatially and within generations. Some areas don’t need a net increase in housing but desperately need existing poor-quality homes improved or replaced. In many areas the biggest issue is low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity.

All these issues and others play a part in defining “the housing crisis”. Having a framework for what we need and want from housing, combined with an understanding of the complexities and interactions that run through the housing market, is essential to resolving the problems they create.

The problem with ‘households’

A misunderstanding of the complexities of housing can be found in one of the most frequently stated explanations for the crisis: a lack of new supply compared with household projections.

Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. Household projections are not a measure of housing demand. The effective demand for new housing is determined by the number of people or companies willing and financially able to buy property. Meanwhile new supply only accounts for around 12 per cent of total transactions and probably less of available homes for sale.

Importantly, even if some analysis may suggest there is no shortage of supply, that does not mean there is no need for new supply. Household projections are a statistical construct based on the past, not a direct measure of future housing demand. But they are still important if used appropriately within a framework for what we need and want from housing.

If we are more explicit about the role of household projections in measuring housing need and the assumptions they contain, then the ‘supply versus household projections’ argument might be recast as a debate on changing household sizes and the consumption of housing (both in terms of space and multiple properties).

This then implies that we should be clearer about the minimum acceptable amount of housing people need, while also accounting for what they want. Should younger people still expect to form households at the same rate and size as their parents? The assumptions and projections around future household sizes should be moved from the background, where they are typically only discussed by planners and researchers, to the centre of the debate.

They should be just one part of a framework for success that explicitly states what we need and want from housing – not just in terms of size but also cost, tenure, quality, security, and location – and better defines the minimum we are prepared to accept. That will provide a clearer understanding of where housing is failing to meet those requirements and help set objectives for how to fix it. These could then be applied appropriately across different markets.

“Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper”

If measurement against the framework shows that households are not able to form at an appropriate rate and size relative to what they need, then we probably need to increase supply while possibly encouraging older households to move out of larger homes. If rents are too expensive then we may need to reform the rental sectors and increase supply. If housing quality is poor, then we need to work harder at improving and replacing existing stock. If many areas are struggling due to low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity, then we probably need to look beyond just housing. It might even question whether we need to rebalance the economy and infrastructure investment away from London and its commuter zone.

Having a framework for success may even highlight which issues we can fix and which we can’t. For example, it looks likely that we are stuck with a low interest rate and hence high house price to income market. Under those conditions, prospective first-time buyers will continue to struggle to raise a deposit and access home-ownership irrespective of how much new supply can be realistically delivered.

Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper, higher quality, and more secure as a long-term home. Increasing new supply would be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

When we have a framework for what success could look like, our ability to understand and fix housing appropriately will be dramatically improved. It would be an important step towards making housing available, affordable, and appropriate for everyone that needs it. It would also be more useful than simply setting a nice round number national target for new homes.

Neal Hudson is an independent housing analyst, who tweets as @resi_analyst. This article originally appeared on his blog.