London is broken

(Update, December 2015: this post generated considerable interest and led to an article in the Spectator in which I am referenced. The latest news is that The Glad has achieved status as an Asset of Community Value and the developer’s appeal against this was refused; but, unfortunately, so was the Walworth Society’s application to list the building. However Southwark Council are creating a new ‘Liberty of the Mint’ conservation area which will include The Glad, and this should give the pub further protection from demolition. Thanks to all who continue to show support!)

A few weeks ago, members of my extended family gathered in the Gladstone, a pub on Lant Street in Borough, just south of London Bridge, to celebrate the launch of my cousin Helen’s new book. The choice of venue was deliberate: the book opens with an imagined meeting between my great-grandmother, who lived on Lant Street, and my great-grandfather, a brewer, who we think worked in the brewery opposite the Gladstone and perhaps in the Gladstone itself. The pub was said to have been renamed after the Prime Minister who, family legend has it, regularly tipped my great-great-grandfather a gold sovereign for driving him to Parliament in his hackney cab. Gold sovereign or not, my great-great-grandfather’s business failed and he died in a poorhouse. The family moved out of Lant Street, and our connection to that part of London withered.

The Gladstone, Lant Street

Today, the Gladstone is a successful local watering hole, catering to the young professionals and creatives who populate that part of London now, and regularly staging live music. Each time I’ve been there it has been packed to the rafters. But the landlord is glum, despite his thriving business. Why? Because, like many London pubs, the Gladstone’s future is uncertain. It is owned by a faceless holding company based in the Isle of Man, one imagines for tax reasons, and they have applied to Southwark Council for permission to demolish the pub and replace it with luxury apartments.

Just up the road, London’s most celebrated gay pub, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, stares a similar fate in the face. The RVT, as it’s known, is a hugely popular and historic venue for London’s gay community. But it was recently sold to Austrian property developers who will not guarantee its future.

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern

So the Gladstone and the RVT may join over 3,700 other London pubs which have been lost to the local community in recent years. Each one of these pubs will have meant something special to a local person or a local community, just as the Gladstone and the RVT mean something special to my family and my friends. Not every local pub is a viable business, and some closures are inevitable, but there is something more sinister going on here.

The companies which have bought these pubs have no interest in making them work as a business. They are only interested in their assets. Which, in the case of London pubs, is not their clientele, nor their stock, nor their turnover, nor their brass fittings. It is their physical footprint. London’s frenzied property market is badly broken and out of control. If you’re rich, then it will make you richer. London property is the new Swiss bank account. If you have London property to sell, then you stand to make a mint. And if you have a plot on which you can erect a few luxury apartments, then it’s jackpot rollover time. Why slave away for slim pickings in the pub trade selling low margin beer and food when you can instantly quadruple your money as a property developer? As a capitalist, it’s a no brainer.

Which is why we have planning laws. Politicians have a responsibility to ensure that our neighbourhoods and communities are managed in a way which benefits the community as a whole. They are supposed to protect valuable local services from predators who value them only for the price their stripped carcasses will fetch. Somewhere, those responsible for governing London seem to have lost sight of this. Property is treated as a commodity with little intrinsic value beyond what it will fetch on the open market. Regulations are weakened, or abandoned entirely; the very word regulation is used as an insult. Is it any surprise that some developers think they are above the law?


The Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale

We have some good local politicians, and local MPs. But the Mayor of London, and central government, have actively encouraged a culture of free market anarchy in London and this is celebrated by greedy groups and individuals who can’t see beyond their own winnings. Meanwhile, local communities are dying. People on average incomes can no longer afford to live in the inner city. Londoners’ quality of life is dropping as they are forced to spend more and more of their wages on accommodation and on transport. Local services, including pubs and shops, are priced out of existence.

The Green Man in Catford

Pubs have a unique place in British, and London, culture. They are a resource for the entire community. They create local jobs. Their value extends far beyond the pounds and pence that developers stand to gain by using their footprint to expand London’s ever-more-insane property bubble. We can fight to save the Gladstone and the RVT, and perhaps we will win. But it’s already too late for thousands of other London pubs, and individual victories alone will not win back a London that’s fit for Londoners.

Remember this when it comes to our chance to elect a successor to Boris Johnson on 5 May next year. And in the meantime stay vigilant and watch your local authorities. They have a legal obligation to consult the public and respect neighbourhood plans when considering planning applications.

Lobby Southwark Council to save the Gladstone here. Join the campaign to save the RVT here.

19 thoughts on “London is broken

  1. Amber Langley

    This situation is defiantly a cause for great discussion. Pubs and historic buildings are closing before our eyes. I understand that this pub is in Central London which gives it even more market value but that is by no means any reason to close it. Many generations of people have sat in those pubs and pondered life and this should be open to many generations to come. We cannot have london becoming a glass town instead of a historical one. Save our London!

    1. ottocrat Post author

      That’s absolutely right Amber! Once they’re gone, these historic meeting places are gone for good. Developers are depriving London of its future as well as its past.

    1. ottocrat Post author

      I wish I’d known more about my family history when I first read Little Dorrit; it would have given it a very personal resonance.

  2. Christopher West

    Planners ignored the outcry against destroying the 12th century Hospital, Church and precinct of 4000+ people, in favour of building the Telford St Katharine Docks!!! YES progress must take place where it can be justified, BUT! In retrospect, the new Docks didn’t make significant profit, so didn’t necessarily justify the removal of the ancient Hospital and community.

  3. Scarlett Knowles

    What an outrage! This is happening everywhere. A local pub is a jolly place to be. Have people ever wondered what happens in many pubs. It is a place to meet new people that may play a big part in your future. These pubs connect London and link back A LONG WAY so to take that away would be a stupid and disastrous thing to do.

  4. J Mark Dodds

    Beautifully measured piece, you’ve got it. Pubs, and the people and communities they serve are suffering particularly from this ungodly property feeding frenzy, fuelled by tied pubco’s flogging off ‘their’ assets whenever possible on the back of insane property prices, to pay down interest on the debts they raised to buy the pubs in the first place. Publicans, pubs, people and places mean nothing to the suited wine swilling, white collar cultural criminals who are supposedly ‘custodians of the British national pub estate’. They’re asset stripping the UK’s traditions, our cultural heritage, our places of original social networking where young and old people can learn how to behave responsibly together.

    I’m co-founder of the Fair Pint Campaign and sat on the steering group for Fair Deal For Your Local… Have a blog here I’m an admin for Licensees Supporting Licensees, and I’d very much appreciate having a chat with you of you can find time…

    Best wishes, Mark

  5. Griselda

    I hate seeing these old places go…. but there are other reasons why they disappear. Selling drink has always been a tough business. People can’t drive to pubs any more, so the pubs have to do food or something else because drink alone is not enough. So many rural pubs in the country are now Chinese or Indian restaurants, really in huge numbers…. it seems only immigrant families are willing to run village businesses with long hours etc. Also, very often the upper floors of the urban pubs are not really earning their keep – they’re not suitable for modern living, maybe, or not fire-proof enough for modern standards. Who wants to live over a pub (or a restaurant, come to that)? And the breweries which used to own these pubs were not known for their kind-hearted policies, so the holding companies you mention are really just continuing the ethos of the breweries. I was amazed to learn that Whitbread is no longer a brewer… it’s all done under licence for them by someone else. They are mostly a property and hotel/hospitality business. If we want to keep these community assets, we have to find a way to value them in planning terms. Personally I have got involved in the fight to save Thames-side boat-yards and other marine facilities – all the waterside sites are snapped up by vast corporations, often based in the Far East, who want to put huge blocks of flats on them…. the river gets channelled into vertical-walls, as the Seine is in Paris or the Tiber in Rome – more dangerous, faster, less wild-life, no piers, no repair-yards for boats, no flood capacity, no wharves, no life on the River. Yet the Port of London Authority and the Mayor’s office seem to rub their hands in glee at the thought of all this ‘investment’, and as you say about the pubs, the community suffers. Planning used to offer protection of some sort, but no longer. We have to find a new way to get them to see how much damage they are doing, and we have to offer new solutions to these problems.

    1. ottocrat Post author

      Thanks for your comment, I very much agree – some change is inevitable, but it must be managed change and done with the community’s future health in mind. I suspect this whole issue is going to become a major aspect of next year’s mayoral election. It certainly should be.

  6. Griselda

    Just for your information, and as a supplementary to my remarks above, here is a list of some of the boatyards or other maritime facilities on the Thames estuary which are at direct risk of disappearing due to land-based property ‘development’….

    Faversham Creek, with Oare Creek, Conyer
    (Milton Creek at Sittingbourne already lost due to fixed low bridge)
    Northfleet Harbour – Conrad Broadley
    Swanscombe – moorings
    Gravesend – public landing stage and mooring rings
    Dartford Creek
    Galleons Point Marina – could be London’s barge hub
    Greenwich Peninsular where there is a little draw-dock near the Dome
    Aluna Project
    Lea Valley
    Deptford – Henry VIII’s Dockyards
    South Dock and Greenland Dock
    Battersea Power Station
    Lots Road
    Wandle Delta
    Fulham Football Club
    Brentford (opposite Kew Gardens)

  7. paul hallam

    I am a regular in the Gladstone – tho I live 25 miles away.
    and drive past the RVT on a regular basis.
    what sets these pubs apart is the fact that they are currently successful. Try get a seat in the Gladstone any night after 7pm – particularly if there is music on.
    When I drive through Vauxhall in the evenings there are always crowds around and about the pub. It seems to be packed every night of the week.
    these pubs are not closing because they cant make ends meet or pay the VAT or council tax etc.
    Its simply that the people who have bought them have more of a love for dosh than they do for London communities or its history.
    In time there will only be weatherspoons left!

    1. ottocrat Post author

      This is exactly what is most frustrating and worrying about this trend. Things change, tastes change, and many pubs are closing simply because demands have changed. But that isn’t the case for all pubs – the Glad and the RVT for example – and what we’re seeing in the case of the Glad and the RVT (and many other, similar, successful pubs) is developers hiding behind this argument to try to persuade the planning authorities to let them go ahead with their plans to shut down thriving businesses in order to make money from their redevelopment. It’s easy to cook books and make a business look as if it is failing, even if in fact it’s thriving. I understand that this has been exactly the approach taken by the owners of the RVT.

      For me, the main argument must be one of cultural value rather than economic health or even community access to facilities. The owners of the Gladstone say they will put a bar or café into the ground floor of the new block – and there are many pubs within easy walking distance of the Glad – so it’s not as if its destruction will deprive anyone of drinking opportunities. The real loss to London would be the disappearance of a pub with a history, with character. Such a loss can’t be repaired, not even in the case of the pubs mentioned in my article where developers were ordered to replace them brick by brick.

      I know that the RVT Future campaign lodged an application with English Heritage to give the RVT protected status. I wonder if the same could be done or is being done with the Gladstone? I’ll try to find out.

  8. Pingback:  What’s happening to London’s Pubs? | Vauxhall Spring

  9. paul wheeler

    chris I would love to help with this campaign. and have some experience dealing with councils on planning issues and working with local councillors. let me know how I can help.

    Paul Wheeler

    (and well done for getting coverage in the Spectator!).


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