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Pub closures: The spirit of change

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."