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The Crooked House’s controversial fate – burned to the ground after being bought by developers – underscores the precarious position of many British pubs. Staffordshire Council might demand the iconic wonky boozer is rebuilt, but appeals and legal tangles will leave the local community in limbo – likely for years to come.
The story has captured the public’s attention, in part I think, because the heartbreak of seeing a beloved local watering hole shuttered is an all too common sight across the UK.
But what’s even more disheartening is the knowledge that these closures aren’t just the result of benign market forces. They are often the calculated decisions of developers and predatory purchasers seeking maximum profit at any cost.
Unauthorised demolitions and conversions punctuate this unfolding narrative. Worse still, slap-on-the-wrist fines often feel like a business expense, conveniently factored into the profits of redevelopment.
A rare case of developers being held to account affected The Punch Bowl Inn in Hurst Green, Lancashire. It was bulldozed by Donelan Trading Ltd after the owners ignored a council decision to protect the pub in 2021, the BBC reported. Five people were fined more than £20,000 – nearly two years on – for their role in knocking down the Grade II-listed building, and they were ordered to rebuild it.
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At the core of tragedies like the Crooked House is ‘predatory purchasing’, whereby developers buy to profit from conversions, and pub owners are cajoled to sell at prices ballooning beyond the genuine value of the pub.
Once the gavel falls on such sales, the fate of the pub is often sealed.
The Campaign for Pubs has a clear call for change on this: don’t let these establishments change hands until they’ve been on the market for at least a year at their independently evaluated price as a pub.
London is not immune to this. The site of The Castle in Battersea had been home to a pub since the 17th Century. In 2013, developers won permission to demolish the pub and construct high-end flats in its place.
Developer Languard said it intended to build a new pub below the proposed flats, after hundreds of residents wrote in to object to the loss of a community hub. Ten years on, there is of course no pub. On the very same street, The Woodman has just closed, with many fearing it will be hived off to developers.
Leeds, too, bears witness to the conversion frenzy, with the historic Victoria & Commercial Hotel, and the Guildford set to be lost to student flats and office spaces, respectively. No doubt there’s a need for both – but councils are often unwilling or unable to demand that space is retained on ground floors for the site’s historic use.
There are many ways to skin a cat, in developers’ eyes. Once the intent to convert pubs emerges, we often see pubs left to decay, becoming hotspots for vandalism and theft.
One would assume that unlawful demolitions would be the zenith of this issue. That’s far from the truth. More often than not, it’s the stealthy methods of predatory purchasing and unchecked closures that erode our pub culture.
Take a look at the ongoing battle to save the White Lion in Surrey. Locals didn’t even know it was up for sale before it was sold by pubco Greene King to a developer. After successful tenancies were ousted and a string of failures followed, the pub now languishes in disrepair. The owner remains defiant, ignoring the community’s pleas to save it. The Campaign for Pubs believes the new owner is awaiting the day planning permission lands in his lap.
Alternatively, poor operators are sometimes deliberately brought in to ensure the establishment runs to the ground – only to then raise the banner of the pub’s ‘unviability’. Or worse, if there are sitting tenants, hiking the cost of a lease to unaffordable levels is a sure-shot eviction strategy.
I covered that very thing happening to a beloved local music pub, The Junction, in south London last year. Councillors, activists, musicians and even local Jay Rayner were powerless to save it. Nor would getting it listed as an ‘asset of community value’ have done much – that only offers some limited protections during sale, not change of use.
Sometimes, the destruction is more blatant, like in the case of an owner openly damaging the pub. Developers, with the assistance of pricey planning consultants, master the art of painting these pubs as ‘unviable’ – often with shiny brochures filled with dubious evidence. Unfortunately, planning authorities, more often than not, fail to see through this subterfuge. The tactic is no secret: sometimes they even boast about it.
Pubs can be left to rot by owners who want them run into the ground – even when it’s a listed building involved. When residents saw through a developer’s ruse to turn a beloved pub into temporary refugee housing (no doubt before converting it into flats), they resorted to “utter vandalism” – hiring builders to hack vintage tiles off the listed pub last March. Brighton Council issued a stop notice, but the damage was already done.
On numerous occasions, the Campaign for Pubs has thrown its weight behind would-be rescuers, both commercial and community-based, seeking to salvage these establishments. Yet their voices are muted amid a cacophony of vultures.
Then there’s the issue of owners, already living in and operating pubs, wanting to convert them into personal homes in their entirety. Again, their claims of unviability often find sympathetic ears in council chambers.
The case of the Crooked House highlights the plight of our pubs, but it can also galvanise collective action. Pubs aren’t just brick and mortar: they are homes of local history, fostering camaraderie amid a pandemic of loneliness.
Without action on greedy developers, however, many will be lost – whether to fire, or more likely, to the wider gamut of tactics beloved of profiteers and being played out across the country.
As Greg Mulholland, campaign director of the Campaign for Pubs tells me: “Our pubs are being cynically and systematically asset-stripped by offshore-based pubcos, developers and investment funds who treat our pubs like monopoly pieces. While a few good councils stand up for pubs, most give in to developers, failing their communities.”
Like most issues, this is bigger than cash strapped councils. As Mulholland adds: “We urgently need changes to legislation to stop any pub that is 50 years old or more being converted unless it has been marketed at the independently valued price as a pub for at least a year.”
The Crooked House must be a catalyst for change. It’s time to send a message to the vultures: cultural vandalism will not be put up with any longer.
Edit: An initial version of this piece said Staffordshire Council demanded the Crooked House be rebuilt. That call came from West Midlands mayor Andy Street. It is unclear yet what the council will do in terms of enforcement.
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