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Will the last pub in Britain to close please turn out the lights

·4-min read
e  (PA Wire)
e (PA Wire)

It is September 1 2038 at 10.50pm. And the only remaining pub in Britain has just called last orders for the final time.

If that seems unlikely – it’s a back of the envelope calculation admittedly – pubs only need to keep closing at the projected rate to make it a reality.

Pubs, places associated with Britain like nothing else except perhaps The Queen, are in dire trouble.

The British Beer and Pub Association, the trade body whose members own half of the UK’s 47,000 boozers, says thousands of pubs will close rapidly unless the government does something to ease their energy bills.

The sector employs 940,000 people, it notes.

Last week, a poll by pub industry magazine the Morning Advertiser, revealed that many publicans fear an “extinction-level event” this winter due to soaring costs.

Some say they could only make a profit on a pint if they sold it for £14.

Pubs were alread closing apace, due to a mixture of Covid, energy bills, staff costs and cheap supermarket booze.

Between 2019 and 2020 pub numbers fell by 13,600, or 22%. There was another 15% fall in 2021, according to ONS figures.

As if things weren’t hard enough, George Orwell’s favourite pub has the same problems as everyone else and some more.

Orwell had a very specific idea of what a good pub should be. He wrote about it in a famous essay praising a boozer called The Moon Under Water – later adopted by JD Wetherspoon’s as the name of several of its pubs, notably the one on Leicester Square.

The model for Orwell’s pub is actually called The Compton Arms, a pub off a side-street in Islington near Highbury Corner. You wouldn’t say it is that hard to find, but the first time you stumble upon it accidentally is still a treat.

Four people who live nearby have complained to Islington Council that the pub is a nuisance, citing noise and rubbish.

On social media, the pub says that the allegations are “infuriating and frustrating" after the "extreme lengths" managers had gone to in order to work with neighbours and operate the pub considerately.

"Post Covid periods have seen a lot of pubs go through similar situations," it said. "A minority get used to the quiet then decide the pub that’s been there since the 1800s, that is an asset of community value, is now a nuisance.”

Islington Council says, in a sober statement: “A review process of the licence for Compton Arms has been invoked by residents, and the case will be heard by an Islington Council licensing sub-committee. This is expected to take place during the week commencing Monday, 19 September. As the case is under review, the council is unable to comment any further at this stage.”

Asked who is on the sub-committee, if the hearing is public and when a decision might be made, the press office is obstructive, which doesn’t bode well.

It does rather seem as if a small group of agitators, people who we can guess don’t go to pubs much, might be able to force the demise of a place thousands of people know and like.

I asked Tim Martin, the founder and chairman of Wetherspoon’s what he made of it and wasn’t surprised to hear he knows the pub well.

“The Compton was my regular haunt when I first came to London in 1978, 18 months before starting Wetherspoon. Groovy pub, great atmosphere . Still remember some of the top-class graffiti in the loos to this day,” he says.

Edward Piller, a local DJ, writer and Mod entrepreneur, is one who is angry.

He said: “This pub has been around 200 years and the four residents who are trying to close it down are unreasonable. The pub needs support.”

His letter to the council and to local MP Jeremy Corbyn goes like this: “We have lost three pubs within 300 yards of my house recently but none of them have the literary and cultural importance of The Compton Arms. I genuinely feel that a pub which has been in place for well over 200 years should be protected from entitled incomers who are more interested in house prices than our community. Please protect this wonderful venue. Just think, what would George Orwell do?”

If you phone the Compton Arms, you get this: “The mailbox is full, you cannot leave a message”. At least that suggests they are busy serving customers. For now, anyway.