Pubs in Westminster have had a tough time of it for a while now and it seems that almost every edition of the West End Extra comes with a story about a pub being closed or sold to developers. Recently two pubs in the area, The Perseverance and Raven’s Head, rang the bell for last orders for the final time. It’s of great concern that many of these bastions of the local area are disappearing from our high streets.
It is a similar picture across the country – according to the Campaign for Real Ale 29 pubs close across the country every week – but in a Borough where property prices are so high the threat to the local is ever-present. It was no great surprise when The Black Lion pub in Bayswater sold for £20 million, as a pub it made £700,000 last year, which shows the extraordinary disparity between the value of the business and the value of the property.
Of course, there are planning regulations in place to protect pubs from development and the Mayor’s London Plan encourages boroughs to “adopt policies to maintain, manage, and enhance public houses”. However, when the financial gains for developers are so high they can often choose to ignore the planning process altogether. This was the case with the The Carlton Tavern, a historic pub in Maida Vale being considered for listed status that was destroyed overnight by property developers. There is an on going battle to get the pub rebuilt brick by brick but stronger policies could have prevented such an act of vandalism happening in the first place.
Whilst the London Plan recognises the significance of pubs as site local communities to meet and relax in, it doesn’t appear to have had much effect. Just from walking around the city it is clear that more pubs are closing every week, leading to a huge loss in our community infrastructure. I passed a motion at the London Assembly last year that called on the Mayor to do more to set out a clear set of policies to protect pubs, such as a presumption against change of use where a developer is unable to meet strict criteria for the marketing and viability of the site.
One of the strategies available to people fighting to keep a pub open is to get it registered as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). It was good to see this approach put to use in Westminster when the Swan and Edgar pub closed in 2013 after being sold to developers wanting to convert it a residential property. The Save the Linhope Street campaign put up a good fight to but now the pub has been sold again and there are fears that the new owner may make another attempt at conversion.
Seeking protection from the planning system can only go so far and such protection is limited if pubs are not a successful business. In a crowded night time economy pubs are in competition with cinemas, restaurants, theatres; this precarious situation has been exasperated by factors such as the smoking ban and the rising price of a pint.
One possible solution could be for pubs to develop their offer as a community hub. There are a number of pubs Westminster that have diversified from just food and drink; The Richmond Arms in St John’s Wood has begun to put on jazz nights and the Phoenix in Marylebone is well known for hosting comedy.
This offer to the community could be expanded, in other parts of the city pubs are being used as venues for community meetings, workshops, even yoga classes. This won’t be the right approach for all but for some pubs rethinking what they can offer the community may be the key to unlocking there potential as a business.
The Mayor and local authorities would do well to remember that the existence of one of the most valued features of our city depends not only on protection from developers looking to make a quick buck but on offering support to publicans trying to make a living.
This blog has been published in the West End Extra this week.