It was bittersweet news last month that Historic England had won listed status for 21 inter-war pubs, for its report noted that this important victory came too late to save the Carlton Tavern in London’s Maida Vale, which had been on its list.
Earlier this year the pub was bulldozed without planning permission by the property developer that had bought it from Punch Taverns. Westminster Council told the developer, CLTX, to “rebuild it brick by brick”. As CLTX is based in Israel, I wish the council the best of luck with that.
While Historic England has saved 21 pubs, 29 more close every week and I fear for the future of the Great Old British Boozer. It’s commonplace to blame the closures on changing life styles, the smoking ban and cheap supermarket alcohol — all of which have had a major impact — but there are even more disturbing factors at work.
Some pubs are closing as a result of companies brazenly giving two-fingered salutes to local authorities and bringing in the wrecking balls. Even if a pub has listed status, it can’t stop owners turning up at dawn and blasting it to smithereens.
The Carlton Tavern — sold by Punch Taverns — is not the only London pub to be wrecked this year. The three-storey Alchemist in the conservation area of St John’s Hill in Battersea was described by Wandsworth Council as being “rich in architectural detail”.
This didn’t prevent developer Udhyam Amim from knocking the pub down. With a cheek that beggars belief, he then sought planning permission to destroy the pub after it was already a pile of rubble. The council, stung by the event, says it plans to give greater protection to pubs in its bailiwick. Stable doors and horses, anyone?
The game of pass-the-pub-parcel goes on. Just a couple of days before Historic England announced it was listing 21 pubs, Punch Taverns sold 158 “non-core” pubs to NewRiver Retail for £53.5m. As Punch struggles under a debt mountain of £1.5bn, the sale will ease some of its financial pressures but that will give scant joy to the publicans whose livelihoods are now in jeopardy.
NewRiver Retail specialises in turning pubs into mini supermarkets. In 2013 it bought 202 pubs from Marston’s for £90m and it says it’s making “good progress in converting a number to convenience stores”.
Both Punch and NewRiver refused to reveal the names of the pubs that were changing hands — an absurd attitude in the days of social media. Within nano-seconds of the release of the news, Twitter revealed that one of the pubs was the Roscoe Head in Liverpool, which has the distinction of being among half-a-dozen pubs that have appeared in all 43 editions of the annual CAMRA Good Beer Guide.
Carol Ross, the tenant of the Roscoe, was understandably distraught when I spoke to her. But the Twitterstorm that followed led to NewRiver declaring the pub would not be turned into any kind of retail outlet.
But what fate awaits the remaining 157 pubs? And how does Punch decide what is a core pub and what is “non-core” one?
Carol Ross, whose family has run the Roscoe for more than 30 years, told me Punch had always assured her the pub was a core one. The change to non-core status, she believes, is because she told the company she would choose the market rent-only option next year.
She is convinced Punch has decided to off-load the pub for that reason, as pubcos will make less profit from beer sales once a tenant or lessee switches to MRO.
What a sad and dispiriting pub world we live in. In the days when the national brewers owned most of the country’s pubs, beer choice was poor as a result of the rigid application of the tie. But at least the brewers treated their tenants well and didn’t charge eye-watering levels of rent.
In sharp contrast, the modern pubcos are driven by a ruthless determination to squeeze as much profit as possible from their outlets. If their hunger for maximum income is threatened by new legislation that attempts to give tenants a fair roll of the dice, then the pubs are off-loaded. And if new owners close those pubs or turn them into mini-markets, the pubco owners can shrug their shoulders and say: “Nothing to do with me, guv.”
I’m off to visit my local. I’m not desperate for a drink. I just want to make sure it’s still standing and hasn’t been reduced to a pile of bricks by a property developer registered in Uzbekistan.