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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Gaby Hinsliff

The latest casualties of Britain’s rental crisis? Youthful joy – and the buzz and vibrancy of city life

BrewDog Waterloo in London.
‘BrewDog announced that in future new hires will get only the legal minimum, less than existing staff are paid.’ Photograph: Simon Jacobs/PA

Once upon a time, BrewDog used to be cool. That was a while ago now admittedly, but at its peak it rode that punky, vaguely Californian craft beer-and-annoying-beards hipster wave all the way to the big time: a global network of bars, lucrative deals with supermarkets and even a forthcoming feature film about how its then 24-year-old co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie made millions so young.

Crucial to its hey-we’re-the-good-guys image was that for nearly nine years it has been a real living wage employer, committed to paying not just the legal minimum but the amount a person realistically needs to live on, which helped differentiate it from all the other corporate pub chains cashing in on the microbrewery trend.

Sadly, the relevant phrase here is “has been”: last week, BrewDog announced that in future new hires will get only the legal minimum, less than existing staff are paid. The gap won’t last for long, but only because this April when the real living wage rises to £12 an hour nationally and £13.15 in London, BrewDog bar staff will get £11.44 and £11.95 respectively – which represents a pay rise for the out-of-London bar staff but not a penny more than last year for those in the capital.

In a pained response on social media to criticism from the union Unite, Watt pointed out that the company does offer a week’s “pawternity leave” if you get a new puppy. No money, but a pet to make you feel better about that: how very 2024. Meanwhile, pictures of Watt’s recent holiday in the Maldives with his reality TV star girlfriend, Georgia “Toff” Toffolo, are still available on her Instagram feed. The working title for that BrewDog origin story film, by the way, is “Underdogs”.

BrewDog’s excuse is that hospitality is in crisis, which is certainly true, even if one of the reasons for that crisis is that younger people like the ones it employs increasingly don’t have the money to spend on going to bars. In London, particularly, they’re increasingly likely to be spending most of their cash on rent instead, which helps explain not only why BrewDog made a loss last year but why pubs, restaurants, music venues and all the other places that make a city more than just a dormitory are also struggling. The British Beer and Pub Association predicts up to 750 boozers around the country could close over the next six months, and when the MasterChef finalist Tony Rodd announced earlier this month he was shutting his London restaurant Copper and Ink, saying it had become impossible to make a living, he triggered an outpouring of similar catering horror stories.

Estate agents, London
‘A quarter of people aged 25 to 45 are considering moving out of London because the city is too expensive.’ Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Hospitality faces soaring costs for heat, light, power, food and drink, plus stiff rises in commercial rents as landlords try to recoup their pandemic losses, at the same time as a fall in trade. They daren’t try to pass their own rising costs on to people who are already spending so much on the boring stuff like rent (up 31% in just two years in London, according to the estate agent Savills, with a quarter of people aged 25 to 45 now considering moving out because the city is too expensive), or rising mortgages, or childcare bills (up just over 5% last year alone), that they just don’t have much left over to spend on having fun. So all that’s left to squeeze is profits, at least for the bigger players that still actually make any, or staffing costs.

All of this is likely to come to a head in the next few weeks, given January is traditionally the month of customers hunkering down on their sofas – because the weather’s miserable, and everyone is broke or exhausted or detoxing after Christmas – and business owners poring anxiously over the books, asking themselves whether they’ve had a good enough December to carry them through this lean period or whether it’s finally time to throw in the towel.

Though West End theatres do seem to be cheerfully bucking this trend, they have the advantage of attracting an older, more financially stable crowd boosted by droves of American tourists, and therein lies a clue. London in particular now seems trapped in a vicious spiral where people are forced to pay such an impossible amount of money to live in the capital, near the bars and the buzz, that they can’t afford to actually live that life; at which point the bars and the buzz begin to die, and suddenly you’re paying a fortune to live in an overpriced rabbit hutch watching Netflix night after night. The idea that London is eating itself, becoming a place for the wealthy middle-aged to invest in property, rather than for the young to do some actual living, is not new but does feel as if it’s becoming considerably more urgent.

The hospitality industry has long campaigned for a pandemic-style VAT cut to tide it over hard times, but the only real long-term solution is the kind of sustainably higher wages and lower housing costs that can only be guaranteed in a well-managed, growing economy run by someone with the resolve to fix a manifestly broken property market. As to the age-old problem of idealistic startups turning into beady-eyed corporate behemoths just like all the others: no economic strategy on earth can counteract that particular gravitational pull.

But you know what really makes the whole counter-cultural craft beer lifestyle thing work? Having enough money to actually buy one.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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