A well-loved Hackney pub closed its doors last year when it was bought for redevelopment. As part of Pub Week, ELL spoke to the punters who stepped in to save it.
“That pub has been open to the public every single day since 1866,” says James Watson, leader of the Save Chesham Arms campaign group. “That’s until he bought it. Bang. Closed.”
The Chesham Arms, described by one ex-punter as “just a proper old fashioned back-street boozer,” happily served the community around Mehetabel Street, near Hackney Central, for many years.
Owned by the Webster family of Woodford Green since the mid-1970s, the pub was run by tenants who kept the place ticking over.
Watson, who is also Pubs Preservation Officer at the interest group Campaign for Real Ale, moved to the street in 2010, and remembers the Chesham fondly: “It was a well-used pub. It wasn’t a gastro, you could get simple food, and in the summer they used to do these barbeques. Karaoke on a Friday night was popular,” he says. “We very much miss it.”
Out of the blue in June 2012 the Webster family sold the pub to a developer, who promptly closed it down and kicked out the tenants. They were made homeless and a community lost its focal point.
Soon, hoardings sprung up around the pub and in November 2012, new owner Mukund Patel, told the Hackney Gazette that he intended to divide it up into flats. When informed that this was against planning regulations, Patel declared to council that it would no longer be used as a pub but as an office.
“And the council can’t do anything about that,” says Watson. “He’s permitted to do that. So he ripped out the bar, put a partition in and created two offices.”
According to Watson this planning loophole, which allows pubs to be converted into ‘professional services’ or retail premises, has seen the demise of hundreds of pubs like the Chesham Arms in recent years.
“That is why we’ve lost so many pubs to betting shops, to supermarkets, to payday loan shops, because they don’t need permission to do it.”
He also cites the huge demand for residential space, particularly in London, as being the reason that many pub buildings are snapped up by developers. It is hoped by developers that they will be given permission to convert these sites into top-of-the-range apartments.
“People fall into the trap of thinking that if they see a pub close it’s because it was failing or doing badly,” says Watson. “The problem is that a pub – no matter how well it’s doing – cannot compete with the amount that flats or retail would pay.
“If you’ve got people who will come along and pay ten times the value of a pub, pub businesses can’t compete with that. This is where the planning system needs to step in and correct the problems in the market.”
Watson sees this as a threat to city life.
“Do we want to live in a London that is wall-to-wall residential property? When are you ever going to meet your neighbours? When are you going to socially interact?” he asks. “We need to have places for communities to get together: cafes, green spaces, community centres, pubs. All these should have protection through planning law, sadly they don’t.”
However, local residents have refused to take this lying down and successfully applied for ACV – Asset of Community Value – status for the pub in March 2013. The Chesham is just the third pub in London to be recognised in this way.
“He (Patel) completely underestimated the strength of feeling in the community,” says Watson.
In a recent Times editorial Mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe lent his support to the campaign and gave it some much-needed national publicity. “Pubs”, he told the Times, “bring together local residents and help to build close neighbourhoods.”
However the struggle is not over: Patel has again appealed the council’s ACV decision, so Watson and his merry men have another legal battle on their hands. But with local support, national interest, and an east London pub chain offering to purchase the building, they are well prepared for it.
One thing is for sure, the Chesham Arms won’t go down without a fight.