A new normal for pubs.


Our guest writer, Rachel Mills-Powell, speaks about how the historic role of pubs and how these could be repurposed as part of the post-pandemics 'new normal'. Rachel is an architectural designer who started her own studio in 2019 and is co-founder of a new community interest company, 'IRL Residencies'.  

The response of voluntary community groups to the Covid-19 outbreak has shown how valuable a resource local collective care can be.

More than 1,800 mutual aid groups have sprung up across the country to help care for those affected by the virus. An umbrella organisation called Covid Mutual Aid UK was set up within days, with the mission statement ‘the basic idea is to coordinate care efforts for people who are self-isolating, especially if they are part of a more at risk demographic’ (please see the bottom of the article for a full reading list). 

Swap ‘self isolating’ for ‘struggling’ and consider this: what impact could this coordination of care have on our national social-care crisis if it was to become the ‘new normal?

 Of course it is conceivable that this just isn’t realistic. Maybe this wave of good-will and togetherness will quickly fade once there isn’t a deadly common enemy to unite us. If we want this momentum to continue post-corona, maybe the question we need to be asking is: what else can build trust and bonds between strangers other than a shared threat?

 Well one easy and enjoyable way is to simply have a drink together. Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford, explains that this is not just because alcohol causes people to lose their social inhibitions, but also because alcohol triggers the endorphin system, the brain mechanism intimately involved in building and maintaining friendships.

 I have a feeling that a booze fuelled approach to sustaining community cohesion would go down well with a bunch of Brits. But is it really possible that some slightly tipsy locals could actually offer something beneficial to their area?

 Old cockney pubs are a very good example of exactly that. These pubs were the driving force behind community action and organisation. They would regularly organise football and darts teams, and group excursions out of the city called ‘Beanos’. Travelling by the shared minibuses organised by the pub meant that people could have a trip to the seaside on a tiny budget.

Crowd sourced loans and accessible financial support could be found at these old locals too. Once you signed up to the Christmas savings club, you had to pay the pub five pounds a week from Jan-Nov. The total sum you paid over this period would then be reimbursed to you in time for Christmas. In the meantime, as the pub had some extra cash to work with, they also provided short term, informal loans to those who needed them.

 Amazingly a sort of hospitable version of a food bank was even on offer too – free spreads of food were put on by the pubs on a Sunday. The logic was that the pub with the best spread of food would attract people to buy drinks while they ate. The result of this generosity is that low income families had access to hot food for the cost of a pint.

What was the magic mix that existed in these pubs that meant they were able to fill in these small gaps of care left unprovided by the state? Shared needs and concerns, a hospitable social space for people to gather, plus a couple of endorphin inducing pints to build up friendships and networks – ding, ding, ding! Could this possibly be a repeatable formula that could boost social capital in other areas of need?

It’s important to realise that along with all the practical benefits you receive when embedded within supportive networks, you also receive incredibly effective treatment for another epidemic that’s been plaguing our country for some time already: loneliness. The reach of this epidemic is so severe, that it affects 18% of adults in the UK ‘often or always’. Despite appearances, loneliness is not just a social concern – it has severe impacts on our physical health too.

It’s been shown that our overall health, life expectancy, susceptibility to disease, and even speed of recovery from surgery, are all influenced by the number of friends we have. One study even found that loneliness has an equivalent effect on our health and mortality as other more widely accepted health risks such as smoking or obesity.

The government’s response to this epidemic of loneliness however has been substantially less drastic than recently enforced measures around Covid-19. In 2018 Theresa May appointed a dedicated minister to the issue, and announced that within five years ‘all GPs in England will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services.’ It seems that the UK government could do with some advice from the Covid mutual aid groups about how to mobilise in days instead of years, and how to avoid relying on already overstretched NHS resources.

Comparing the responses to loneliness and Covid demonstrates our tendency to treat ‘physical-ills’ with far more urgency than ‘social-ills’, even though the two are very clearly related. It also prompts the question: whilst loneliness is a widespread national issue, should we really be looking to our national government for guidance on how to address it? Part of the solution to loneliness involves everyone making more time and space to get to know the people who exist around them. Does that really sound like the kind of thing best delivered through an enforced government policy?

Pier Tavern edit 2 

Image of Pier Tavern.

As busy as we may love to make ourselves, the lack of shared space available aggravates loneliness more than a lack of time: there’s little motivation to make time for something if there is no space to do it in. The example of a flat with no living room is a good illustration of this. Housemates are far more likely to spend time separately in bedrooms than they are with each other, due to there being no communal area to congregate in.

Recently in the UK we’ve suffered the loss of many critical shared spaces such as youth clubs8, music venues, libraries – even living rooms too in rent squeezed areas. Pubs sadly have not been immune from this decline, with more than a quarter of Britain’s pubs closing since 2001, with most of those that have closed being smaller independent pubs11, where the sense of community is likely to be stronger.

There is hope for the industry, as a small increase in the number of pubs was recorded in 2019 for the first time in 10 years. The brutal reality however is that if pubs were struggling to stay afloat pre the lock-down, will they really be able to open again after months of closure? Like an episode of Black Mirror showing us a believable yet unpleasant not-too distant future, the lock-down is showing us what life is like, not just without pubs, but without any shared social spaces at all. We’re learning rapidly what life is really like when we’re confined to just the use of our own private space. Is this the kind of city we want or enjoy?

As incredibly pro-active as the mutual aid-groups have been, one vital ingredient that made the old pub networks so strong in the East-end is lacking: a physical shared space. Many of these new groups only exist on facebook, twitter or whatsapp, which is exactly why they were able to pop up so quickly. Although it’s entirely appropriate that recent collective action has been limited to the corona-proof digital sphere, we cannot overlook the importance of shared physical space in order to nurture quality relationships. As anyone who spends 2 hours+ daily on social media can tell you, an over reliance on digital networks will only feed our feelings of being alone.

With pubs in need of an urgent boost post lock-down, and the new mutual aid groups lacking a physical presence, could this be an opportunity to bring the two needs together and repeat the same successful formula of the old east end pubs? It is possible to translate these recently established digital networks of support into longer-term assets of social care. However, they will be most effective in treating severe problems like loneliness if they are located physically within their local areas.

There is potential to create a ‘new normal’ for pubs that actually isn’t new, but quite an old and essential idea of hospitality: to make a space of welcome for people – including strangers – where they can be taken care of.

Magnet and Dewdrop edit 1

Image of Magnet and Dewdrop

Reading list 

1. Covid Mutual Aid UK. We are volunteers supporting local community groups, 2020. Available at: https://covidmutualaid.org/

2. Robin Dunbar. Why drink is the secret to humanity’s success. Financial Times, 2018. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/c5ce0834-9a64-11e8-9702-5946bae86e6d

3. ‘The Geezers’, Bow. Interviewed by R. Mills-Powell, 2018.

4. Kantar Public. Trapped in a bubble: an investigation into triggers for loneliness in the UK, 2016. Available at: https://www.co-operative.coop/campaigning/loneliness

5. Robin Dunbar. Why drink is the secret to humanity’s success. Financial Times, 2018. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/c5ce0834-9a64-11e8-9702-5946bae86e6d

6. J. Holt-Lunstad, T.B. Smith, & J.B Layton. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 2010. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

7. UK Government. PM launches Government’s first loneliness strategy. Gov.UK, 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-launches-governments-first-loneliness-strategy

8. A. Chakelian. Crumbling Britain: the false economy of youth club closures in Haringey. New Statesman, 2018. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2018/08/crumbling-britain-false-economy-youth-club-closures-haringey

9. L. Dodgson. One small venue closes every month according to new research. The Unsigned Guide, 2019. Available at: https://www.theunsignedguide.com/news/2986-one-small-venue-closes-every-month-according-to-new-research

10. J. Andersson. ‘Libraries are the universities of the streets’: authors call for a stop to further closures. The I, 2019. Available at: https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/libraries-800-shut-since-2010-austerity-benjamin-zephaniah-jacqueline-wilson-authors-1334594

11. R. Davies & R. Partington. More than 25% of UK pubs have closed since 2001. The Guardian, 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/26/uk-pub-closures-financial-crisis-birmingham-ons-figures

12. R. Davies. British pub numbers grow for the first time in decade. The Guardian, 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/dec/11/british-pub-numbers-grow-for-first-time-in-de

City Arms 1 

Image of City Arms