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Farewell to London pubs? They're closing at an unprecedented rate

British capital has lost 25% of its traditional taverns since 2001, as land values soar and habits change

Michael and Linda Norris

Michael and Linda Norris, who have run The China Hall public house for 34 years, face eviction at the end of the month. (Peter Zin/CBC)

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On a recent weekday just before noon, Michael and Linda Norris turned on the lights and unlocked the front door to their London pub, just as they've been doing for the past 34 years.

Across the street from a leafy park in the borough of Southwark, the China Hall Public House attracts rugby players after weeknight matches. Shortly after opening on this day, they welcomed a familiar face, Patrick Ford, a patron turned longtime friend.

"Obviously, all things take their progression, but this just seems to be unfair," Ford remarked.

Since the 1980s, Ford has stopped by for countless chats, but all the talk here has recently turned to the China Hall's impending closure.

"They want to bring the lease to a close and basically just want to get rid of us," Michael Norris explained.

The China Hall public house

The China Hall public house in London's Southwark borough has a history stretching back nearly 300 years. (Peter Zin/CBC)

The family has been leasing the pub — and their home upstairs — but the owners recently doubled the price. The new amount comes into effect when the Norris' 10-year lease is up at the end May.

"It's disgusting," Michael said. "If you've spent 34 years developing the business and developing customer relations and the community, you feel bad."

His concern isn't only for China Hall — with its history in Southwark dating back almost 300 years — but for other London pubs, too. The watering holes have traditionally acted as communal living rooms for Londoners, hosting friends who meet at the pub rather than in their cramped homes.

Although London City Hall's latest figures from 2016 show the British capital was still home to 3,615 pubs, the traditional meeting places are becoming less and less common. Municipal data indicates 1,220 have closed since 2001 — a 25 per cent drop in pubs across the city.

Money matters

Pub owners, campaigners and politicians point to increased costs and a changing culture as the main reasons for the closures.

London's famously expensive housing market has made pubs an attractive target for redevelopment, a municipal lawmaker told CBC News.

"If you own a building, you can get so much more from it if you flip it" and turn it into apartments, said London Assembly Member Tom Copley.

"That's what I think is driving a lot of pubs to be closed."

In Southwark, the average home price in February 2017 (the latest available figures) was £511,119 ($904,856 Cdn). That's a 194 per cent increase since February 2007.

Copley called it a "housing crisis" that's been growing for 30-40 years.

"You can't really turn that around overnight," he said. "Solving the problem is going to be a bit like turning around an oil tanker."

Curbing consumption

Geoff Strawbridge, the regional director of the Campaign For Real Ale, a movement promoting pubs and traditional ales, said "the most important thing to save pubs is for more people to use them."

Government campaigns, however, have long aimed to curb drinking among Britons. And the strategies may be working.

In 2016, 56.9 per cent of adult respondents to a national survey said they had taken a drink in the previous week — the lowest since the survey began in 2005.

What's more, the University of Sheffield's Alcohol Research Group recently found that as pubs have closed across England, supermarkets and convenience stores have more than doubled.

"Our research shows a major change in how people obtain their alcohol," said Colin Angus, who led the study.

"Small supermarkets and convenience stores, where alcohol is commonly available at low prices, have proliferated in recent years. At the same time, the numbers of pubs — which sell alcohol at a higher price — has decreased dramatically."

Plans to save pubs

A new British law will give pubs extra protection, making it harder to redevelop the land. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill received royal assent last week and was applauded by the Campaign for Real Ale.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was "shocked" by the rate of closure and pledged to now better track the number of pubs shutting down.

"The Great British Pub is at the heart of the capital's culture," he said in a statement.

Khan recently hired the city's first-ever "night czar," Amy Lamé, to curb nightspot closures and launch consultations on how boroughs can protect their pubs.

"When tourists are coming over here, the London pub is an icon along with the red buses and the black cabs," said Copley. "They're incredibly important for our community. And they're incredibly important in terms of culture and for our economy as well."

Back at the China Hall pub, Michael Norris worries political solutions will be too little, too late. Redevelopment is "taking away the heritage and the community at the same time," he said.

"There won't be anything left. That's the way everything is going."

Southwark borough London

(CBC/Google)

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