It seems not a week goes by without another story of a much loved pub being closed or vandalised by developers. Only the other week developers demolished the Carlton Tavern in Kilburn without planning permission. A few days later, historic LGBT venue the Black Cap in Camden was closed without warning after it was listed as an Asset of Community Value (please sign the petition against the closure here). CAMRA estimate that across the country 29 pubs a week are closing.
In some cases this will be because the pubs are no longer viable. Perhaps they've been badly run, or simply don't have enough customers anymore. But in London we now see an increasing number of good, well-run, much-loved pubs being closed down as a consequence of our over-inflated property market. After all, a developer can make far more from turning a pub into flats and flogging them off than they'll ever make from keeping it as a pub.
Sometimes developers will use Trojan Horse tactics to get their way. They'll put in an application to convert the upper floors of a pub, but keep the downstairs bar. Their longer term aim is that either the smaller venue will become unviable or that noise complaints from residents in the new flats will result in the whole pub shutting. Then, they convert the rest into more flats or offices.
Many pubs are important parts of the communities they serve, and every pub is different. If a pub closes its doors forever then its distinctiveness, atmosphere and character are lost forever. Just because there may be another pub down the road doesn't mean it will be an adequate replacement. Pubs are more than just a building with a bar inside.
Heritage may sound like a rather stuffy word, but it's important. It's part of what binds communities together and makes them special. London's pub heritage is even woven into our transport network. Five stations on the tube map are named after pubs: Royal Oak, Elephant & Castle, Angel, Manor House and Swiss Cottage.
A pub's fate, therefore, shouldn't be determined exclusively by market forces. This is recognised by the fact that councils and local communities can deploy a number of defences should a developer wish to redevelop a pub for another use. However, London's local authorities vary widely in their approach to pub protection.
Some councils, like Barking and Dagenham and Lewisham, have recently adopted pub policies which require the building owner to demonstrate the property is unviable as a pub. This is a smart way to use planning policy to protect pubs - it's flexible enough to allow truly unviable pubs to be converted to other uses, but strict enough that current owners will have to make genuine attempts to sell/rent it for use as a pub. Other councils should adopt similar policies.
Councils should be swift in facilitating applications by community groups to give pubs Asset of Community Value (ACV) status. ACV status means that a council must be notified when a pub is sold. There is then a six month window in which the community is able to raise the funds to purchase the pub themselves. As of the 6 April this year, ACV status also removes permitted development rights, meaning that developers must apply to the local authority for planning permission before any change of use can take place.
Often pub landladies, landlords and communities feel powerless in the face of wealthy developers with plenty of money and lawyers. But communities can and are fighting back. That's what the community in Nunhead did when Enterprise Inns closed down the Ivy House pub, giving the publican just a week to move out before boarding it up. Instead of standing by while losing an important centre for the community, local people used the six-month moratorium granted by ACV status to get together the money and expertise to buy the pub. It has been a thriving community pub ever since it reopened its doors in August 2013.
The Mayor of London too should make better use of planning policy to protect pubs from unscrupulous developers. Thanks to pressure from the Labour Group on the London Assembly, led by my colleague Nicky Gavron, the Mayor agreed to specifically mention pubs in his recent alterations to the London Plan. This was not in his original draft, but was included in the final version following pressure from Labour members of the Assembly. But the Mayor must do more and back up the new policy with further guidance on specific policies the boroughs should be adopting.
Walking around London, one sees ever more pubs converted into flats or shops. Some of these will undoubtedly have been unviable. However, many will have been lost to developer greed. One pub closing may not attract much attention beyond its own regulars. But across London the sheer number of good, community pubs closing is both a cause for alarm and a call to action.