Commercial conversions: Great British pubs calling time at the bar

As more and more commercial properties become residential, the pub sector is causing controversy...

The global recession, changes in the nations drinking habits and the 2007 smoking ban are just some of the factors contributing to the decline of the Great British pub.

Despite the iconic status of the traditional pub, the sad truth is that many of them are struggling to stay afloat or resisting the tempting offers of developers. 

Although there are approximately 48,000 still in existence, Britain has lost 31,115 pubs to date according to The Lost Pubs Project.

They are closing at an astonishing rate of 4 a day and in 2014, in London alone, over 3,200 pubs called time at the bar for the very last time. 

As house prices have continued to outpace the nation’s incomes since the early '90s, the government has reassessed these struggling spaces in their search for a solution to the ongoing housing crisis.

The socio-economic changes of the last decade have rendered many commercial buildings disused and 2013 saw the relaxation of rules in regards to change of use from commercial to residential property.This made pubs prime stock for conversion with many landlords cashing in on their properties and selling up to developers. 

In January 2013, Permitted Development Rights (PDR) were put in place, allowing the automatic conversion of commercial buildings to residential without planning permission, bypassing the traditional applications and instead asking for ‘prior approval’.

Over three years, spanning 2013 – 2016, these changes to planning law aimed to address the ‘...urgent need to increase the rate of housebuilding in England and make housing supply more responsive to changes in demand’. 

The Department for Communities and Local Government report states that ‘for decades, house-building in England has failed to keep up with the needs and aspirations of [the] growing population.’ The report highlighted the need for assessment of the functionality of buildings, recognising that that ‘there are buildings which no longer function as intended in their existing locations’.

But in January of 2015 the government announced plans to further protect pubs ‘that play a crucial role at the hearts of our communities’.  In a government press release , Community Pubs Minister Kris Hopkins said:

‘The Great British pub is a national treasure which is why we are determined to protect it’

‘But the planning system can only do so much: planning rules cannot keep pubs open which are not making money. Lower taxes, less regulation and a growing economy are the best way to support a thriving and diverse pub sector.’

Community right to bid

The Community Right to Bid came into effect on 21 September 2012, providing the community with a fairer chance to prepare for the sale of a locally cherished property and allowing them to bid on it. 

Introduced by the Localism Act in 2011, communities can now nominate local buildings or land that they care about as an ‘Asset of Community Value’ (ACV). 

If the property comes up for sale the local residents then have a period of 6 months to collectively raise the funds to buy it. According to the Campaign for Real Ale, over 600 pubs have been listed as community assets, meaning that planning permission would have to be obtained in order to change their use. 

We take a look at some tussles between local people trying to win back their community hubs and some very determined developers...

The Carlton Tavern - Kilburn 

Perhaps the most publicised story to date and an event that shocked and outraged not only the locals of Maida Vale, but the whole nation; in April 2015 The Carlton Tavern was bulldozed without any prior approval.

The 1920s pub was considered to be of historical value to the community as it was the only building in the area left standing after the blitz. 

In the wake of a planning application refusal (to flatten the public house and build new flats) developers took the council by surprise and demolished the property just days before it was due to become a listed building. 

The council has now issued an enforcement notice ordering the developers to rebuild the pub, brick by brick, from the ground up to resemble the original.

They also have arrangements set in place for it to be listed as a ‘non designated heritage asset’ (saving it from the same fate in the future).

The Star - St Johns Wood 

This 200 year old pub has played host to a number of famous faces over the years including Sir Paul McCartney and Liam Gallagher. It has also appeared in an Arctic Monkeys music video and featured in The Housemartins' 1986 video for 'Happy Hour'.

The notorious drinking hole has recently caused controversy after apparently being granted a reprieve as Westminster Council listed it as an Asset of Community Value. 

As locals celebrated their victory, believing that they had saved their local from a luxury flat development (with their petition of over 100 signatures) they were shocked to suddenly find it home to estate agency, Champion Estates.

Tom Stainer of the campaign for real ale (CAMRA) stated in The Evening Standard ‘...this is just the latest in a long line of pubs converted due to a loophole in planning law’. 

West End Investments, the original hopeful developers, were unable to continue with their luxury property conversion plan, so instead changed the business and leased it out to the estate agents -  making full use of the loophole as ACV doesn’t cover the protection of the building if it’s leased. 

A statement from Westminster council further revealed that planning permission has only been in place as of the 6th April 2015.

‘We recognise the importance of the pub, which is why we designated it an Asset of Community Value....we are in the process of establishing the facts to determine if any action can be taken’.  

West End Investments specified in The Express that they‘re-let the premises to Champion Estates which has traded there under its lease since March 21st’ and that ‘the lease was signed in full compliance with existing laws and regulations’.

Melanie Luff

About the author

Mel wrote for all titles in the Dynamis stable including, and as well as other global industry publications.


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