I don’t like people telling me what to do: very probably you are the same. I don’t just get angry at people telling me what to do: I also get angry when people try to tell other people what to do, arrogantly and without cause, people like James Watson, who holds the position of East London Pubs Preservation Officer for the Campaign for Real Ale.
I live in a nice Edwardian house that has a covenant in the original deeds which declares that it can never be used as licensed premises. Do you think that’s wrong? I think that’s wrong – it’s my house, and within the limits of the law, I should be able to do what I like with my own property. If I want to turn it into a freehouse called the Duck and Dive, then – provided I don’t inconvenience my neighbours more than is reasonable – that should be my right.
Turn that covenant on its head, and any major restriction on my right to do what I like with my property within the bounds of the law applies just as much – that is to say, if there were a covenant on this dwelling saying it could only ever be used as a pub, that it must be a pub for all time, that would be just as wrong. It’s mine, I own it – don’t tell me what to do with it.
James Watson, however, disagrees. A gentleman called Sandeep Johal has bought an old Victorian pub called the Prince Edward, in Wick Road, Hackney. I’ve never been in it, but from the outside it looks like a pretty typical East End boozer. Mr Johal wants to knock it down, and build a five-storey block of nine flats in its place. He owns it – it’s his property, and within the law, surely he should be permitted to do with it what he likes. Nine flats in Hackney – sit down now if you’re reading this outside London, but flats in E9 can go for anywhere between £500,000 and £750,000 each. I’d guess that even after the cost of acquisition and building, Mr Johal would be looking at a profit of £3 million or more, minimum. Is anyone going to pay him £3 million more than it cost him to acquire the Prince Edward, just to keep it open as a pub? Is he going to make £3 million in rent in any time under 30 years if it continues to run as a pub? (Clue – no, twice.)
Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters
Mr Watson says otherwise. He told the Hackney Citizen “The only reason [Mr Johal] wants to bulldoze this pub and build flats is for short term financial gain for himself” – James, you’re saying that as if it’s a bad thing – “at the expense of this community, and as a representative of a consumer rights organisation that champions responsible drinking, I think that stinks.” As a member of that same consumer rights organisation, and as a strong supporter of responsible drinking, I can’t see what either consumer rights or responsible drinking have to do with someone’s right to do with their own property what they want to.
According to the Hackney Citizen, Mr Watson then went off on a rant against hipsters, apparently based on the fact that the Prince Edward’s customers are largely working class and, in considerable part, of West Indian origin. The Citizen quotes Mr Watson as saying: “The problem with gentrified hipster Hackney is that you leave other people behind. You leave behind working class, dare I say poor, downtrodden people. [You may dare say, James, but I fear you sound like a pretentious, patronising prat for so daring] These are salt of the earth people who are not going to pay £5.50 for a bottle of craft beer. They want to be in a place where they recognise the food offering. Many of these people’s parents and grandparents have been coming here and marking their life events here for years. They are almost the forgotten people of Hackney, but these people are council tax payers and they have been here a lot longer than the hipsters.” There you are, Mr Johal: the rights of the people to eat sausage, egg and chips and drink cheap beer trump your right to do what you want with something you bought.
I love pubs, and I hate pub closures just as much as James Watson hates pub closures. (I quite like hipsters, though – I like the way they’ve brought the dimpled beer mug back into fashion.) I’m as sorry as James Watson is that the people of Hackney look like losing a place that has been a part of their lives since the 1860s. But the idea that because a building is or has been used as a pub, that makes it special and privileged, and deserving of protected status is nonsense. It’s just the same nonsense that saw the self-styled “pro-pub party”, the Liberal Democrats, pass a motion at their spring conference in York a couple of weeks ago under the title “A Better More Sustainable future for British pubs”, proposing to give pub tenants the right to buy their freehold at an independently assessed market value if their pub company puts the site on the market. But “market value” as what?
A premises might have a market value of £500,000 as a pub, since the returns on its usage as licensed premises would only support that valuation, but a value much more as a supermarket, if the returns on its use as a supermarket supported that value, and a value of millions if it was a suitable site for conversion into a block of flats. If the law the Lib Dems want brought in says the tenant can only buy his pub’s freehold at a price that reflects its higher value as a supermarket, or a block of flats, then if he buys it, he is going to struggle to cover his costs trying to run it as a pub. If, on the other hand, under the Lib Dem proposals, he can buy it at its value as a pub, but it is still worth more as a supermarket, or a block of flats, the first thing any smart tenant will do is flog the pub to Tesco, or a property developer, himself, thus (1) transferring hundreds of thousands of pounds of value from pubco to tenant and (2) still losing the “community” an “asset”. Is this really what the Lib Dems want?
The debate about “protecting” pubs from closure is conducted as if there were only a finite number of sites capable of ever being pubs, and every pub that becomes a supermarket, or a private home, or even a coffee bar means a permanent reduction in the number of pubs there could ever be. But this is total nonsense, of course: even in the days when it was much harder to open a new pub than it is now, Tim Martin, to name just one entrepreneur, was putting up his signboards on premises that had all sorts of previous uses: banks, cinemas, shops, post offices, and the rest. The same process is still going on, all around the country: the micropub movement, for example, has seen pubs open in premises that were formerly, to pick just a few examples at random, a butcher’s shop, an antiques shop, a taxi firm’s offices, a hairdresser’s, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a tattoo parlour, a kitchen showroom, a bookshop, a launderette, a bakery, a health food shop … you are, I’m sure, getting the picture. There are even a couple of micropubs opened up in premises that had been pubs originally, but which had closed 80 or 100 years ago. If the will, and the demand, is there, pubs can spring into being almost as easily as nail bars and tattoo parlours, kebab outlets and coffee shops.
Pubs don’t need their existence protecting by legislation because, as has been demonstrated hundreds of times over the past couple of decades alone, if the demand is there a pub will arise, and if the demand isn’t there, a pub will close. People get emotional when they read headlines that say “Village loses its last pub”, but almost every time the pub is closing because villagers aren’t using it in sufficient numbers – and if there really is genuine demand, there is little or nothing to stop a village entrepreneur opening a new pub, micro or otherwise, to replace the one that is closing. A pub is not an irreplaceable asset, the way a Norman church is.
If a pub is truly an “Asset of Community Value”, as defined by the Localism Act of 2011, then the community will be showing how much it values that asset by walking through the door and spending enough money every week to dissuade any pub owner from closing it. Truly thriving pubs, pubs that make more money as pubs than they would do as anything else, don’t need protection. It will be argued that many pubs would thrive without the overheads of the pubco on their backs: but this ignores the very considerable support, visible and invisible, the pub receives from the pubco, and the fact that any tenant buying a pub from a pubco won’t be getting that support and will now have the overheads of his new mortgage-provider on his back instead. It will be argued that some pubcos, desperate for money because their bondholders are putting the squeeze on, will sell even a thriving pub to a supermarket if it can get that quick hit of much-needed cash from the sale. But again, just as nobody will run a pub if they can make more from it as a supermarket, a supermarket operator isn’t going to run a supermarket in premises that would genuinely make more as a pub.
It will also be argued that in places like Hackney, the price of property is a threat to every pub, that the money to be made from redeveloping each and any pub site into blocks of $500k-a-pop flats means even the most thriving pub is in need of protection. That may be true, though I note that even around Oxford Street, where rents are truly shocking (this is no hyperbole – I saw a room full of experts literally gasp a couple of weeks ago at the news that the rent on an Oxford Street restaurant site was £2.3 million a year), pubs still manage to stay open. But I still don’t believe that if a building is a pub, it must be a pub for ever: I cannot see how somewhere that was operating as a nail bar, for example, suddenly becomes privileged because it has been turned into a pub. And I strongly believe that the only results of the Liberal Democrats’ new policy would be either to persuade some pub tenants suddenly able to buy the pub a pubco wants to sell to try to keep unviable pubs going at their own expense, with every likelihood of failure, or to rob pub owners of much of the value of their pubs and hand it to tenants for nothing, while still ending up with a closed pub.
(Parts of this rant appeared on the Propelinfo.com site on March 14 2014)