STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Score one point for British politicians. Leaders of the U.K. have yet to figure out exactly how the country is supposed to leave the European Union, but they have come up with a plan to preserve a treasured British institution - the pub. Many are closing, apparently, due to the high price of beer, as well as more people drinking at home and rising property prices. Now, in an apparent first, a London borough has designated 120 pubs for protection. Owners who want to convert pubs into apartments or supermarkets must first get local government approval. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from that borough, Wandsworth.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: More than a dozen customers are hanging out at the Falcon this weekday afternoon. The bartender pulls down the tap handle and fills glass after glass with amber ale. Chris Cox is sitting at a booth waiting on a friend. Cox says pubs here began disappearing years ago.
CHRIS COX: In this road alone, Falcon Road, at least two pubs have been closed down in the last 15 years. On York Road, another four pubs have gone.
LANGFITT: The Falcon is more than a century old. It's a classic British pub with polished wood, chandeliers and stained glass. But Cox, who's lived here for more than three decades, says pubs provide more than just beer and atmosphere.
COX: A pub creates community. And you have acquaintances within a pub and they will - they protect you. You build a relationship with the bar staff, and they ask questions about your health, your attitude. If they don't see you, they'll go around ask questions - I wonder where he is. And you end up with a supporting network.
JONATHAN COOK: Hi. I'm Jonathan Cook. I'm the deputy leader of Wandsworth Council.
LANGFITT: Cook says one of the big reasons pubs are closing down in this borough south of the Thames is because land has become so valuable.
COOK: Property prices in London, particularly inner London, a borough like ours, have been rising relentlessly. In many ways, that's a positive thing. It's a sign of prosperity.
LANGFITT: It's also served as a signal to many owners to sell.
COOK: Perhaps an owner of a pub, if they're made an offer by a mini supermarket of a big chain, they might think, well, hey, that's an attractive offer. And what we're saying is, well, hang on a minute. We've got an interest here as well. The community values the pub, and you've got to factor that into the equation as well.
LANGFITT: So Jonathan Cook - he's talking about places like this. It's the Prince of Wales pub, and it's really pretty. It's got nice molding and wrought iron out front. But it also has right now big aluminum sheets across the windows. It's been shut down for a long time. And sooner or later, it's actually going to be turned into a Tesco supermarket.
The British Beer and Pub Association says about 10,000 pubs have disappeared in Great Britain in the last decade. But it opposes Wandsworth's solution. Neil Williams is a spokesman for the association, which represents major brewers and pub-owning companies.
NEIL WILLIAMS: This can create a certain amount of uncertainty for old businesses in the pub sector, be they large or small. It makes it very difficult for a pub operator to sell on a venue.
LANGFITT: Jonathan Cook emphasizes that Wandsworth isn't propping up failing pubs.
COOK: No. We would argue it's almost the opposite of that because all of the pubs that we're interested in protecting the way that we have are thriving businesses. That's kind of the point.
DAVID LAW: I think it's a fantastic step in the right direction.
LANGFITT: David Law leases and runs the Eagle Ale House. He wants the policy in Wandsworth to go national.
LAW: We protect our museums, our art galleries and our libraries. A pub is a very big institution in the U.K. So I would argue that, you know, we need to be helping them and make them flourish.
LANGFITT: And as Law sees it, the United Kingdom doesn't need to lose any more. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Wandsworth.
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