Pub closures: The spirit of change

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Pubs are closing down at an alarming rate. But their location – often in the hearts of communities – means that they make perfect restaurants, social clubs and even churches. Phil Thornton reports on life after last orders

Britain's traditional pub is facing last orders. Four close every day and following the extra 4p a pint of tax in the Budget, the outlook is even gloomier. But what happens to an old boozer once the publican calls time and the brewery boards it up? The answer used to be simple – convert it into flats. With house prices falling, though, and the construction industry in distress, that no longer looks a good bet. And yet salvation may be at hand in an unlikely form – as a home for a church.

The King Edward VII pub in Islington, north London, is one of many across Britain to have fallen into dereliction in the last few years, yet ring on the doorbell now and a vicar will answer. Dressed in jeans and with shoulder-length hair, Mark Fletcher is no ordinary vicar. But then The Church on the Corner is no ordinary church. The local Anglican parish had wanted to establish a new church and decided the former pub was ideal. "From a church point of view it is a really provocative space," says Fletcher, the minister in charge. "Being an old pub building gives it a different sense that draws people in."

At least three other pubs have shut within half a mile, one converted into flats and other two into restaurants. Fletcher believes the pub fell victim to fast-changing demographics of this inner-city area. Traditional working-class regulars were replaced by young professionals as well as migrant families, whose religious beliefs often preclude them from consuming alcohol. "The community has changed so much," he says, adding that establishing a church in a pub can offset some of the loss of a community space.

Fletcher is not alone. In the Kidsgrove area of Stoke-on-Trent, another group of Christians took over a derelict pub called The Galley. Pastor Cathy McKeown says she spotted the disused pub in the middle of a council estate. "As I drove past one day I thought how mint it would be as a church – not just a Sunday meeting place but as a community place," she recalls. The brewery gave them the use of the building for a peppercorn rent. "The pub was in a bad way but the brewery replaced all the windows and a large group of us decorated it," she says. More than 100 people from the estate turned up to its first meeting, which was followed by coffee mornings, toddlers' groups, curry nights and pre-school clubs. "It does seem ideal to give disused pubs to community groups – it is what communities need, especially the kids," she says.

Boarded-up pubs have become a symbol of the death of community spirit in Britain's towns and cities. The decline has been dramatic. For this, the British Beer & Pub Association blames mounting costs, sinking sales, fragile consumer confidence and the smoking ban, as well as cheap supermarket beer and the growth in home entertainment. Meanwhile the whole industry changed following the 1989 Beer Orders that led to the hiving off of vast pub estates and the creation of specialist pub companies.

David Preece, professor of technology management and organisation studies at the University of Teesside who has done extensive research into changes in public house retailing, says pubs have become "financialised". "Essentially we are in a situation in 2008 where pubs are assets that can be bought and sweated," he says. "If they feel they can make more money by selling the pub and putting the money somewhere else, then that's what they'll do. If you take all those factors together, it is a pretty heady cocktail for the old pub."

The trend towards converting pubs into alternative commercial or welfare functions is a relatively new trend. Figures collected by the north London branch of Camra (campaign for real ales) shows 227 out of a stock of 936 in 23 north London postcodes have closed since around 2002. While 84 were converted into flats, 143 were taken over by business and voluntary groups, and are finding a new community role thanks to their prime location and their history as a focal point. Former inns and taverns have been converted into new uses as diverse as an Ethiopian restaurant, a theatre, a Turkish social club, a canoe centre and a café opposite Pentonville Prison called Breakout. In many cases, the new owners retain the traditional heavy pub tiles and the metal frame that once contained the pub sign, leaving behind a virtual map of the pub network.

Brick Lane, in east London, once had no fewer than 20 pubs. The names – The Frying Pan, The Duke's Motto, The Jolly Butchers – are redolent of a former era, but apart from the derelict Seven Stars next to a mosque, all have found a new use. Three are Asian restaurants, two are cafés, one is a hairdresser, there's a clothes shop, and one hosts a money transfer facility. In keeping with this trend, the restaurant chain Nando's has converted seven London pubs and two in the provinces into food outlets.

However, Camra does not believe businesses or social centres make up for the loss of the pub for a local community. "Pubs act as community centres and meeting points," says Owen Morris, its national spokesman. "Many now offer food or other ways to appeal to the family market." Rob Hayward, chief executive of the BBPA agrees. "Pub closures at this rate are threatening an important hub of our social fabric and community history," he says.

Professor Preece says the closure of pub can be very damaging, particularly to rural communities. "In many cases the pub is the last community facility left – the village shop went years ago and the Post Office and bank have gone," he says. "There may be a village hall but it is not an inviting place to sit and chat. The pub was the place where the football team and the darts team were run from. Their loss is a great shame."

Without doubt the loss of the pub to private housing is the worst option as it ends any use as a community asset. However, Preece is cautious about embracing alternative uses. "If it becomes a shop, that's a private business where people can come and buy things. It's not a meeting place and it is not somewhere you can run a darts team from," he says.

A church, restaurant or sauna may not be everyone's cup of tea – or pint of beer – but they are more of a community asset than a block of flats. But perhaps pub aficionados may have an overly nostalgic memory. As Fletcher says of the Edward VII: "It was not a welcoming place by all accounts and, frankly, a bit rough. People have rose-tinted glasses."

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee