Lewisham fights to save its declining pubs

The Baring hall hotel pub in Grove Park, Lewisham. Pic: Stacey Harris

More than a third of Lewisham’s pubs have disappeared in  the past decade, according to a new report released by the borough council. Sydenham ward Councillor Liam Curran is now campaigning for a change to local planning permission to save pubs for future generations.

The report, which was released at the councils Sustainable Select Committee meeting last week, shows that the number of pubs in Lewisham fell to 92 in 2011 from 145 in 2001. One of the hardest hit areas was Evelyn a council ward in North Lewisham, where now only five of the 21 pubs remain.

The report says most of the pubs were pulled down to make way for residential complexes.

“Pubs are the hub of the community, a democratic place where anyone, irrespective of class, income, race and background, can go and meet their neighbours for the price of a pint,” said Councillor Curran.

“Here in Lewisham, many of the pubs are handsome, fine Victorian buildings in the most prominent locations in our high streets and side streets. It is cultural vandalism that so many are being pulled down.”

Pubs have only a limited protection under the current permitted development law, which sets out what can be built without planning permission. Pubs can be redeveloped into shops, restaurants, cafes or financial and professional centres without permission. With land prices being highly attractive, real estate developers are using this flaw in the law to convert pubs for commercial gains.

“There is currently little or no protection for pubs under current planning rules,” Curran said. “The owners of pubs will make far more money by flogging off the pub for a block of flats than keeping it as a pub. It is as simple as that,” he said, adding that many of the pubs that have closed were successful and economically viable.

Last September, the council stopped the demolition of the Baring Hall Hotel, a popular pub on Baring Road in Grove Park. The 130-year-old building was being converted into flats and shops, and the plan was approved by the authorities. But campaigners approached the high court and managed to secure a local listing, which gives it temporary protection from demolition. The developers will have an appeal hearing in December.

“The Baring Hall Hotel is a landmark in Grove Park, it is a historic building and the only remaining pub within half a mile. Its demolition will rip the heart out of the local community,” Curran said.

Nationally, pubs were closing at 16 a week in the second half of 2011, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research. A total of 1,300 pubs closed in 2010 across the country.

“’Pubs are the heartbeat of countless local communities across the land,” the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) told ELL. “A combination of high beer tax by the government, below cost selling of alcohol by supermarkets, decreased consumer spending, and more specific issues such as pubs being demolished without the need for planning permission, are causing such high rates of closures.”

Pubs, according to CAMRA, also keep a check on binge drinking. “’Pubs provide a regulated environment in which to consume alcohol responsibly, and it is the duty of care of the licensee to look after his/her customers,” it said.

“What needs to be put in place is a minimum price policy of around 40p per unit of alcohol across both the on and off trades, which would prevent large supermarket chains from selling alcohol so irresponsibly,” says CAMRA.

A report into planning issues with recommendations is currently with the Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, with a response expected in November.

Curran says to strengthen the new local planning rules, locals can apply to the council’s planning department for a local listing of their pub. They can also investigate whether the building or land could be added to the new community asset register, which comes into effect this autumn. The register allows at least six months for the local community to try and raise funds to buy the building if a sale is proposed.

“The power lies entirely with the Mayor and now is the time for watertight changes to the rules that will then assure protection both for the pub as a building and the use of the building as a pub,” Curran said, adding, “There is no time left to lose.”


Map showing the loss of pubs between 2001 and 2011 in Lewisham. Source: Pubs in Lewisham, an evidence base study April 2012.

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