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British pubs: popular but disappearing

The Old Crown in Birmingham.

British pubs have been closing at a rate of 31 a week, and that rate is accelerating. The Campaign for Real Ale is warning that a world-famous British institution is in danger of severe decline. The group has called for urgent measures to save the pub and preserve a valuable piece of the fabric of British life.

Stephen Langdon is one of a group of regulars trying to save his local — The Maiden Over in Reading — from closure.

“It will damage the community no question about it.” Langdon says. “ The pub has been a real focal point for the families and local community. If we lose it, there will be nowhere else for us to have a social evening in our neighborhood. There is no other pub within easy, convenient walking distance from where we live.”

Langdon's pub is scheduled to be turned into a supermarket. A similar fate befell Gareth Epps’ local pub, with negative consequences for his social life.

"I don’t see my friends so often now, I don’t see my neighbors so often." Epps says. "It means I lose the chance to pay cricket for my pub team. It diminishes the quality of life in our neighborhood."

Many of the pubs that have closed their doors were making money but not as much money as the supermarkets that replaced them. Indeed, supermarkets now pose a big competitive threat to pubs as retailers of booze.

"Supermarkets are selling beer so cheap that people on low incomes are driven into the arms of the supermarkets because pub beer is so much more expensive." explains Roger Protz, author of "300 Beers to Try Before You Die." "So people buy cheap beer from the supermarket and drink it at home.”

Adding to the plight of the British pub is a corporate malaise. The handful of big companies that own most of the pubs are heavily in debt and they need to sell off more of their assets. The supermarket chains are willing buyers.

CAMRA used the occasion of its annual Great British Beer Festival last week to highlight the threat to the British pub and to call for closure of what it calls a loophole in UK planning law.

"Something that is as intrinsic to British culture as the British pub can be closed down, can be knocked down, it can have its use changed, with no reference to the local community." CAMRA’s spokesman Tom Stainer says. The group wants a planning application to be required before a pub can be demolished so that the local community has a chance to save it.

The group has launched an unusual crusade for the sake of the country’s social health: to drive the British people back to drink, in a pub.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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