The Star Inn in Salford is about as far away from the world of gastro-pubs as its possible to get.
Hidden from passing trade up a narrow lane, it is very much a local's local. Behind the green swing doors the Star is warm and steeped in local history. The weekly darts tournament is still played on a "Manchester log-end", a wooden board that has to be kept in a bucket of water to keep soft.
Ten years ago this corner of northern Salford boasted eight pubs within walking distance of the Star. One by one they've closed their doors.
Before Christmas the Star nearly went the same way. Robinsons, the brewery, decided to sell up and gave three weeks' notice of closure. But the Star's locals formed a co-op and bought their drinking hole for £80,000.
"It was a simple decision really," says Dr Tim Worden, a local GP and one of the 65 shareholders in the Star. "Some of us who live here wanted our godchildren to see what a local pub looks like. If the Star went that would have been the end. The nearest pub would have been a good 20 minutes' walk away or a taxi trip into town. And we all know what the pubs there are like."
In recent years communities have resorted to co-operatives to save village shops and Post Offices – but pubs missed out on this trend. That is slowly changing.
The Star is the second pub to have turned itself into a full co-op complete with shareholders and – if the profits come in – dividends paid in cash or beer. Two more co-op pubs, one in Cumbria and one in West Yorkshire, are in the process of opening. And Britain's first pub co-op, the Old Crown in the Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria, is going from strength to strength.
"They won't work in every instance but in communities where you're down to the last pub a co-op could do extremely well," says Ed Mayo chief of the national umbrella body for co-ops, Co-operatives UK. "It's worth pointing out that co-ops have a wonderful track record of thriving in tough industries."
And industries don't come much tougher. According to the British Beer and Pub Association 39 pubs are closing every week. A new report from Co-Operatives UK estimates that 2,700 pubs will collapse in the next 12 months, compared to 2006 when there were just 316 net closures.
Any landlord can give you a litany of reasons for why the industry is so tough; from spiralling energy costs to tax hikes and the smoking ban. But two things get them most animated: the "beer tie", which forces half of the country's pubs to buy drinks from a particular brewer (often at vastly inflated prices), and the multinational companies known as "Pub Cos". Half of the UK's pubs are owned by Pub Cos, the two biggest owning a quarter.
The dominance of the Pub Cos can be traced to 1989 when the Thatcher government tried to inject competition into the pub industry. Breweries with more than 2,000 pubs were ordered to sell off their excess, and offer a "guest beer". The cleverer breweries worked out that there was nothing to stop any number being owned by a company that didn't make beer. So they set up property companies to own vast numbers of pubs and force licensees to buy off a brewer.
Landlords rarely go on the record against their Pub Co, but one who runs a barely profitable pub in the Midlands told The Independent how rents and drink prices go up whenever the company that owns his building needs an extra injection of cash. "Two years ago I had a rent review and they upped it from £40,000 to £60,000 a month," he said. "The price of drinks through my tie has gone up 22 per cent in two years. We have no choice but to pass the hike on to the customer who will hit the supermarket instead."
A growing number of MPs believe the power of the Pub Cos needs to be tackled. "We need radical and effective reform," says Greg Mulholland MP, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Save the Pub Group. "The Pub Cos have shown they are not prepared to regulate themselves."
Back in the Star Inn, the locals are planning a series of reforms too. Robinson's beers have been replaced by ales from a local micro-brewery and there are plans to place tables outside for the summer. Says local Margaret Fowler: "It will stay a pub where you meet people from all walks of life. As soon as you walk through that door you're all treated equally."
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