One of the joys of Islington is its pubs, not the high street chains but the lovely Victorian pubs on quiet side streets.
Last night, Rich and I enjoyed a pint and the Sunday papers at the Island Queen. Hidden away opposite Hanover School on Noel Road, the Island Queen has a spectacular interior, huge and high-ceilinged – like the Kings Head on Upper Street, but without the crowds. Everything was perfect, the service, the atmosphere, the drinks and we unwound happily.
The week before, I met Lib Dem friends at the Crown on Cloudesely Road, which has endured when so many other pubs in the area have closed. One friend lives in an ex-pub on Cloudesley Place. Of the pubs on Barnsbury Road, the original White Conduit House, latterly the Penny Farthing, has become a restaurant; while the Eclipse is now flats, and the King Edward VII became the Church on the Corner. Now the King of Denmark at the south end of Cloudesley Road is due to shut next month.
Sometimes closed pubs do re-open. Most recently the Canonbury tavern. Famous for its huge garden, it closed in 2006 after growing complaints from the neighbours about noise nuisance. Now it’s reopened with compromise conditions preventing late night use of the gardens.
Neighbourhood pubs are great, but you want them to be good neighbours, not neighbours from hell.
The current 24-hour licensing laws, introduced by Labour back in 2003, were supposed to create a ‘continental cafe culture’; needless to say, they have not. Instead chain pubs and bars, with no stake in their neighbourhood, can create nuisance on an industrial scale.
Truly independent pubs are much more interested in what their community wants and are free to provide it. But under the current law, most pubs are tied to the big hospitality conglomerates. The Fair Pint campaign, backed by Lib Dem MP Tim Farron, is trying to change that.
Meanwhile in Clerkenwell, the LibDem councillors are running a campaign to declare the ward a ‘saturation zone’, arguing that the 135 pubs, bars, nightclubs, off-licences, restaurants and other alcohol outlets already in the ward are more than enough. I’ve been out with them the last few weeks, collecting petition signatures. (And yes, we do tend to end up in the pub afterwards).
Imagine my joy last week when I saw that on my list of people was one Hazel Blears: her famous flippin’ flat is just a bottle’s throw from Farringdon. As she was a Home Office minister at the time the Licensing Act came in, I was quite looking forward to the encounter: but she was out. Down the pub? Or, as one friend suggested, at one of her other homes….
What would I have told her? We’re not anti-pub – far from it. But we want decent pubs that are good neighbours and part of the community around them; not soulless drinking factories. 24 hour licensing isn’t the answer. Reforming the tied pub system could be.