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Over the past fifteen years, we’ve lost about a third of the pubs that previously existed in the UK. You might expect that to lead to a general thinning out of the distribution of pubs, with most of the losses being in areas with a high concentration. However, in fact we have seen the opposite, and pubs have become considerably more concentrated. Large areas of residential development, and of countryside, are now completely devoid of pubs, while in other areas they seem to cluster ever more thickly, with the number actually having grown over that period.
In some places this produces a positive outcome, with a thriving pubgoing culture leading to greater success all round. I have written about this before in connection with York, and it can be seen more locally both in the Northern Quarter of Manchester City Centre and in the prosperous urban enclave of Chorlton-cum-Hardy. As I said in that post, “the existence of good pubs encourages an interest in beer and pubgoing and creates a virtuous circle that leads other pubs to thrive”.
However, this process can have a downside too. Many of our cities and larger towns have seen the development of a strip of youth-oriented bars, often playing loud music and predominantly catering for stand-up drinking, which have come to be recognised as regular trouble-spots. It doesn’t take a degree in sociology to appreciate that the disorder and the edgy atmosphere to some extent feeds off itself and intensifies to an extent that would not happen if it was just a case of a single bar.
This blinding insight has now been spotted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who have produced a report suggesting that:
“local authorities should use planning powers to encourage a “dispersal” of bars and clubs aimed at 18 to 24-year-olds to tackle binge drinking”.
The report found that
“young people actively sought out ‘clusters’ of youth-orientated bars and a concentration of ‘clusters’ in the North-East formed part of the reason for young people to drink more than they originally intended.”
If bars aimed at young people were more spread out, there can be little doubt that the weekend atmosphere in town centres would be improved. But, on the other hand, while planning restrictions can stop bars opening in specific locations, they can’t be relied upon to get them to open in places the operators don’t want to go. Stopping new town-centre bars isn’t going to breathe new life into moribund suburban locals. And, even if you do succeed in spreading bars out, the residents of the areas they are dispersed to may not be too happy about it. It’s almost like stepping back into a vanished era, but I can remember at least two long-closed suburban “nitespots” in and around Stockport that were a perennial source of complaint from locals. Creating dedicated town-centre entertainment zones was to some extent a deliberate policy to concentrate “nuisance” and keep it away from residential areas.
However, it seems to me that the Rowntree Foundation are rather wide of the mark to suggest that bars should encourage non alcohol related activities such as live music or dancing, as surely those are precisely the factors that help stoke the febrile atmosphere. If you want to apply qualitative criteria in an attempt to reduce alcohol-related disorder, surely the key things are to have pubs and bars which are more compartmentalised and less open-plan, where music is subdued or non-existent, and where a high proportion of the clientele are seated. But I know very well that trying to bring that about through the planning process is much like legislating for water to flow uphill.