Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Trying to get a decent drink

According to CAMRA, one pub a week is being converted into a supermarket, largely because the current planning regulations don't consider this to be a change in use (pubs being classed as retail outlets), so formal planning permission is not required. The friends of beer think this is a bad thing as it encourages viable pubs to be sold off. According to Tescos, "We are taking on derelict or vandalised pubs, not those which are still actively trading, and for all sorts of reasons those pubs were not successful. We go into communities and ask people what they want and how we can deliver that." So who is right?

I live on the fringes of Southfields in London, which lies within a triangle formed by Wandsworth, Putney and Wimbledon. It's popular recognition rests on the Tube station, which is the alighting point for the All England Club, about three-quarters of a mile down Wimbledon Park Road. For two weeks each year the station is swamped with corporate advertising and a surging tide of tennis grockles being touted by cabbies on their way in and colliding with commuters on their way out. It had a bit part in the recent BBC drama, as local resident George Enthwhistle was doorstepped pre and post-resignation. Further back, when it really was all fields round here, George Eliot lived at the Wandsworth end. Like many areas opened up by the extension of the metropolitan railways, Southfields is now part of that middle ring between inner London and the 20th century suburban expansion, which largely follows the boundary of the old London County. It's a mix of increasingly expensive family houses and yuppie flats, the latter particularly popular with Antipodeans and South Africans who've been forced south by high prices in Earls Court and Shepherd's Bush. Though there are council estates, these are physically marginal and gradually being sold off.

When the house-building began in earnest in Edwardian times, much of the land around the station was purchased from the Bishopric of London. This entailed a covenant that prevented the building of pubs for a century, despite (or perhaps because of) Young's brewery being just to the north. Until the 1990s, this meant walking down to the Merton Road, which formed the Wandsworth to Wimbledon side of the triangle, or up to The Green Man on Putney Heath, though a wine bar, Mandy's, did manage to get in under the wire in the 1980s by posing as an eatery (it's now a Starbucks). When the covenant expired, two pubs quickly opened, The Grid Inn and The Old Garage. Neither were much cop, the former being a gloomy Wetherspoons and the latter a bland Greene King. Last year Wetherspoons sold up, which means we now have a gloomy Tesco Metro instead. A Sainsbury's Local has also opened this year, replacing a Nicolas vintners, and a Waitrose has been given planning permission.

While I was no fan of The Grid Inn, it was neither derelict nor vandalised, and the suggestion that Tesco listened to the local community is tripe. Most of the shops in the immediate vicinity carried anti-Tesco posters when the change in use was announced, and some still do. While the shop owners obviously have a vested interest, this antipathy pretty accurately reflected local sentiment. The area already had two convenience stores as well as a butcher, fishmonger and greengrocer. I have no doubt that all three supermarkets will be successful, and that the other traders will gradually accomodate themselves to the new reality, simply because Southfields is a large dormitory suburb with a growing population of younger working adults who favour convenience stores. The people who use the greengrocer (more variety and cheaper) are not the target market. Restaurants and pubs have struggled simply because the customers for these have ample and better options on the boundaries of the area, particularly at Putney and Wimbledon on the District Line. For this same reason, the plan to convert the old snooker hall back to its original use as a cinema is doomed, as there are multiplexes at each corner of the triangle, not to mention a bijou Curzon in Wimbledon. I suspect we'll end up with a fitness club, a coffee shop and more flats.

That said, there is an argument for a decent pub in the centre of Southfields. Given the proximity of the Earl Spencer gastro-pub on the Merton Road, it should forget about competing on food and focus instead on quality real ale and wine. The real shame is not that pubs are being replaced by chain stores, but that so many pubs are themselves bland chains.

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