Sunday, 4 April 2010

Estate of disgrace

I recently had the occasion to drive along Victoria Avenue in Higher Blackley, Manchester, for the first time in a number of years. Along here there used to be two massive 1930s estate-type pubs, but both have now disappeared and are simply vacant plots. You can see one of them – the Berkshire – on Google Street View before it was demolished. This is a pattern you can see all over the country – imposing 1930s, 1950s and 1960s estate pubs, surrounded by an expanse of under-used car park, either closed and boarded, knocked down and turned into a weed-strewn wasteland, or redeveloped into something else entirely. Here’s an all too typical example from Redhill in Surrey.

Obviously many once-thriving establishments have fallen victim to a profound social change. You can’t blame this on changing attitudes to drink-driving, as all these pubs have thousands of potential customers within walking distance and in any case were built when few working-class people owned cars. It is certainly true, though, that middle-aged people nowadays are much less likely to go out for a drink in the evenings, and younger ones are more likely to head for a town-centre circuit than go to a “local”.

Was the concept of the “estate pub” flawed from the start? There are two pervading myths about the pub trade – that coming home from work, eating your tea and then going out is the typical pattern of pubgoing, and that the presence of nearby housing guarantees business for any tolerably well-run pub – neither of which is any more than a half-truth, and which over the years have led many people to misunderstand the dynamics of the trade and make ill-informed business decisions. Possibly building smaller pubs that were part of local shopping centres rather than plonking them on massive free-standing sites in the midst of areas of housing may have given them a better chance of long-term survival.

While estate pubs may have been planned to offer all the facilities pubgoers wanted, the very act of planning made them somewhat sterile and characterless, and people felt happier in smaller, cosier, more natural and haphazard older pubs. In many areas the twentieth century pubs have gone, but the nineteenth century ones (or at least some of them) are still there. Perhaps it was a mistake to “plan” pubs at all. Might it have been better if the presence, or absence, of pubs in areas of new development had been entirely left to the discretion of private developers?

12 comments:

  1. It's a funny one, isn't it? I've known estate pubs to be thriving hearts of their communities. I used to play in a darts league where we visited pubs on the Aylesbury estate in Walworth, S London, and another one in Deptford. They had friendly punters, and supported darts, pool and football teams playing in local leagues.

    On the other hand, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near them if it wasn't for our darts matches. On any other occasion, I'd have been an outsider, and looked at oddly, maybe even threateningly. At some point, some of these estates became ghettoes, and the pubs that served them were 'turf'. I don't suppose that occurred to anybody in the 30's, 50's or 60's, but best intentions, and all that...

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  2. The "gangland" aspect may have been a factor in some cases - it certainly helped reduce the number of pubs in the Manchester overspill estate of Wythenshawe - but many pubs of this type have closed in reasonably respectable areas. For some reason, the concept often just doesn't work, or if it once did, it doesn't any longer.

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  3. Why does anything have to last forever? A pub is built for its current market. When that market disappears, knock it down. If new markets appear, build new establishments that meet the current need. The trendy bars I like will not be there in 20 years time and I have little problem with that. I look forward to discovering what is there in 20 years time.

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  4. I'm basically agreeing with you, Cookie. The approach of saying "here's a housing estate for 12,000 people. Let's have one pub for each 3,000, equally dispersed over the area" was never really going to work. No business has any right to continue in existence if it can't attract sufficient customers - but the reasons why they can't are often interesting and complex.

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  5. Cookie's trendy bars.
    I would fight to the end to defend
    the right of another's wish to frequent trendy bars. Would they
    be cracious enough to defend my
    right to a back street tavern,
    smoke stained, selling luke warm ale to the toiling masses who do not hear the pontificating righteousness of distant tyrants.


    Anybody with more than a couple of "O" levels knows why our working class pubs have been
    ruined
    Class hatred hiding behind shrouds.
    We have become a nation of
    Pharisees and Judases.

    Industrial Dinosaur

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  6. The smoking ban certainly hasn't helped, but the trend I describe was well in motion long before it came into effect.

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  7. I have seen these kind of pubs survive and work well if they don't end up bland and mass-produced. For example Hall & Woodhouse have built pubs in new housing developements in Dorset, one is just up the road from where my partner's sister lives and it is a well run local pub serving good food. It has been welcomed as it has given some of the other pubs in the area a good hard kick up the backside to improve their standards which were slipping.

    Of this proves the point that you can't just put a pub in a highly populated area and expect it to do well. It has to have good management from the start and not rest on it's laurels once it is popular but keep on working hard. All to often popular pubs let their quality/standards slip once they achieve a good turnover then they seem to treat their customers with slight contempt expecting them to put up with declining standards.

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  8. Good points (even, for once, those made by the creature that calls itself Cooking Lager). It does seem to be the bigger pubs that are closing down interestingly enough, presumably because the overheads are higher (and most of them have I think ended up in the hands of pub companies rather than brewers - whether there is any significance in that I don't know). Planning pubs for residential developments has been a minefield over the years - going back to the 1920s and 30s, the "improved" roadhouses were also pretty unpopular at the time (or so I have read) with people much preferring smaller and "cosier" locals.

    Of course, get the right people running the place and almost any pub can be a success, even in this day and age.

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  9. The Berkshire is, as the crow flies around half a mile from my house. I regret to say I've never been in it.

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  10. "The Berkshire is, as the crow flies around half a mile from my house. I regret to say I've never been in it."

    Helps explain why it closed!

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  11. The Manxman in Blackburn is another example of these kind of places. I don't know about the rest of th country but in Blackburn, nearly all of these places have fallen out of use or into bad reputations as the surroundings estates have succumbed to mass unemployment (and, eventually, higher crime and drugs etc)

    They've ended up being places nobody outside of the estate ever goes to because the areas have such bad reputations.

    In Blackburn's case then, it wasn't so much the pub's fault, but that of everything else going on in old industrial towns like this since the estates were built.

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