LONDON — One by one, the pubs are disappearing in Hampstead, a jewel-box village of cobbled lanes and Georgian homes that has become one of this city’s most fashionable neighborhoods. The Nags Head has become a realty office. The King of Bohemia is now a clothing shop. The Hare & Hounds has been replaced with an apartment building.
Changing economics and shifting tastes have claimed roughly 1 out of every 5 pubs during the last two decades in Britain, and things are growing worse. Since the 2008 financial crisis, 7,000 have shut, leaving some small communities confronting unthinkable: life without a “local,” as pubs are known.
And that has spurred the government into action. New legislation is letting people petition to have a pub designated an “asset of community value,” a status that provides a degree of protection from demolition and helps community groups buy pubs themselves, rather than seeing them get snatched up by real-estate developers eager to convert them for other uses or tear them down. Since the Ivy House, a beloved local in south London, became the first to receive the designation last year, roughly 300 others have followed suit.
“The pub, we like to think, is relatively internationally unique, it’s a very traditional thing,” said Brandon Lewis, the Conservative member of Parliament who serves as the Community Pubs Minister, an office that underscores the special place pubs occupy in British life.
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“In many communities they are really important, not just because it’s where people come together, but it will be the focal point for fundraising for the community, for the local football club, for the dance class, for the moms’ coffee morning,” Lewis said.
Still, the traditional pub is being squeezed as never before, even after George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer, reversed course in March 2013 and reduced the tax paid on every pint of beer, by a penny. Anti-smoking laws are keeping smokers away. Cut-price beer at supermarkets is eating into business. In London, the upward spiral of real-estate prices has made pubs attractive targets for developers.
And then there is a seismic cultural shift on this isle of bitter, porter and stout: People in Britain are drinking less beer — about 23 percent less than a decade ago, according to the British Beer and Pub Association. Pubs have been trying to take up the slack with other beverages and expanded food menus.
Yet on another level, Britain’s pub trouble is also an echo of the deregulatory fervor of Margaret Thatcher. In the 1980s, her Conservative government broke up the near-monopoly brewers held over pubs.
But the breweries were replaced by other corporate interests — large, independent companies that have since gobbled up a little more than half of the nation’s pubs. These “pubcos” often own the land, determine what beer pubs can sell and can charge high rents.
Some amassed their holdings by going deeply into debt and are now selling to the highest bidder to capitalize on their real estate. A proposed parliamentary motion last month decried the profit margins of one pubco, Punch Taverns, calling them “wholly unacceptable.”
“Large pub companies own a lot of property, and there’s a temptation to sell some of those properties off for a quick monetary gain,” said Neil Walker of the Campaign for Real Ale, an advocacy group. Many pubs have been turned into residences or supermarkets, he said.
One battleground here in Hampstead is at the Old White Bear. A handsome, two-chimney building of red brick, the Bear has occupied its spot on Well Road for three centuries. Peter O’Toole, it is said, had to be carried out occasionally in his younger, wilder days. Elizabeth Taylor, who was born in Hampstead, and Richard Burton, who owned a home here, were also visitors, patrons say. Recent guests are said to include Boy George and Liam Gallagher.
But after the Old White Bear was bought by a group of developers through a company on the Isle of Man, 2,000 people signed a petition to save the pub. The Bear has been declared an asset of community value, and the local council has so far refused permission to turn it into a six-bedroom house. Even so, the pub closed on Feb. 2. With the developers determined to fight, the Bear’s future is uncertain.
Guy Wingate, a longtime patron, pointed to Hampstead’s fallen locals. While the village has other pubs, the Old White Bear, he said, had become the center of his community.
“You rip the heart out of that, and we’re either all going to wander the streets like zombies or stay indoors and not see each other ever again,” Wingate said over coffee at Cafe Rouge, which used to be the Bird in Hand.