This essay, on the importance of social spaces, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 11 April 2021, under the headline “Full pubs are a sign of communities that work. Let’s toast their return”.
There were thousands this week, shivering in some icy pub garden, raising their glass to the next step on the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, as outdoor drinking resumed. At the start of the pandemic, they could have done so in thousands more venues than they will be able to tomorrow. In the decade following the 2008 financial crash, almost a quarter of all pubs closed – around 1,100 a year. Over the past year, lockdowns and social distancing rules have led to another 2,500 closing their doors permanently – 5% of all pubs shut down in a single year.
When a pub closes down, what is lost is not just a place to drink or get drunk. It is also a social space, a place for connections, for conversations, for serendipitous meetings, for finding respite from loneliness. A place, too, that often provides a sense of belonging and attachment. A “local” is not called a local for nothing.
The areas in which pubs close down are often also the areas that most need them. The biggest losses have come on the peripheries of large cities – Newham and Barking and Dagenham in London, Bolton and Rochdale, near Manchester, Sandwell, Dudley and Walsall, around Birmingham. Many are places that have most grievously felt the pain of austerity, economic decline and social loss.
A recent study suggested that support for radical right organisations in Britain is related to the numbers of pub closures in the area. It is not that there is some kind of spurious causal relationship between the closing down of pubs and people voting for Ukip or flocking to the English Defence League. It is, rather, that pub closures are an expression of the erosion of social capital in an area, often one among many organisations and institutions that seek to bring people together, from trade unions to youth clubs, disappearing or being less able to reach out. And as such social spaces vanish, people become more divided from one another, more anxious, feeling less in control of their lives, more open to the siren voices searching for scapegoats for social problems.
In areas where pubs close down, many other social spaces vanish, too. Before the pandemic, one in five music venues had shut their doors in the previous 15 years. Of those that remain, half might now disappear. In the decade between 2010 and 2020, 750 youth clubs closed in England and Wales, as local authority expenditure on youth services dropped by 70%, or £1bn. Now, almost two-thirds of smaller youth clubs are at risk of closure.
And then there are libraries. They may seem like the opposite of pubs – not noisy and convivial but hushed and restrained. In fact, a library is as important a social space as a pub or a club.
Books enable us to transcend our immediacy, to enter other people’s worlds and imaginations, to understand their hopes and desires and aspirations. The gift of the writer, as the novelist Aminatta Forna has evocatively observed, is to take the reader on a journey, to reveal to them something they had not seen before.
Libraries are a way of ensuring that this gift is available to all in the community. They make reading not a private pleasure but a social possibility, less constrained by wealth. Like pubs, they can also become community hubs, bringing people together, connecting their interests, widening their horizons.
Yet in the decade leading up to the pandemic, 800 public libraries closed because of funding cuts. One in eight of those that remained were run entirely by volunteers. The fact that so many are willing to give up their time to service their community is a testament to people’s selflessness. The fact that they had to in order to keep libraries open is an indictment of government policy.
Pubs, clubs, music venues, libraries – too often we see them as ornamental extras rather than as the essential building blocks of an engaged society. We have spent a year being largely isolated from one another. We spent a decade before that deliberately closing down social spaces through policies of austerity and social neglect.
As we move beyond the pandemic, perhaps we can learn the lessons both of austerity and lockdown and recognise the significance of social spaces to a flourishing society. Otherwise, the isolation we endured during the pandemic we may continue to replicate through policy and neglect.