Friday, June 26, 2015
Same story in Estate Agent Today: Foxtons frustrated by latest twist in pub-office saga
The last thing the immediate vicinity needs is a Foxton's. The Elephant and Castle has enormous potential as ... A PUB! It is in a fantastic, high footfall location. People dismissing the pub as a bad place that deserves change of use because of past problems are just plain wrong. There's nothing wrong with the area and the potential customer base at all but the pub has been poorly managed for years. Poor pub management leads to poor behaviour among customers and the kind of history this venue has seen. The pub itself is genuinely iconic because of its remarkable heritage and as a modern building could easily be made to be an iconic example of its own architectural style. It's a marvellous opportunity to prove that well run pubs, properly invested with good products and service have vibrant, financially sustainable futures ahead of them.
Here's my bit on the Elephant and Castle pub from a week or so ago
Sunday, June 21, 2015
Friday, June 19, 2015
What is killing the Great British Pub?
The Great British Pub is an institution. It is an iconic, instantly-recognisable oasis of security and comfort, the world over. All pubs are unique. Yet in so many respects, all pubs are reassuringly the same. With few exceptions, one knows exactly what to expect. Everyone has their favourites. People will remark ‘that’s a good boozer’ or ‘what a lovely little pub’ often without being able to articulate what it is that so attracts them. What is that intangible, intrinsic magic? What essential characteristics make up the utopian Moon Under Water? Aside from beer, wine, spirits and toilets, the other factors are as individual and diverse as the general population itself. The clue is in the title – a Public House. Who is the public? It is everyone. All of us. Society. Community. The rest of the world does bars, cafes and restaurants, to differing degrees of success. Only the British can truly deliver a pub. That is because it is a finely-honed mature construct. Pubs have evolved from the three basic constituents of inn (1400s onwards), tavern (1600s onwards) and beer-house (1800s onwards) until by the golden age of ‘pub building’ (1860-1900) the formula had been perfected. Little changed until the 1960s when the traditional divisions between the public bar and the saloon or lounge were tragically torn down and a new wave of open-plan, yet somewhat lacking in soul and character, shared drinking spaces was born. The old rubbed along with the not-so-old, and the nearly-new, until the late 1990s when the wheels really started to come off the machine. Blair’s Britain offered the digital-age distractions of Brit Pop, Girl Power, four supermarkets in every town, deregulation of everything from banks to broadcasters, and within a decade, Britain found itself in the grip of the worst recession since the end of the Second World War. By the time the green shoots of recovery arrived, our pubscape had changed dramatically. At the lowest ebb of the economic downturn in early 2009, some 56 pubs each week were shutting their doors, permanently! How did we get into this mess? Did we lose our love for the pub or were more powerful forces at work, conspiring to dismantle the cultural fabric of society?
Public House Ownership
Historically, the brewers established estates of pubs in the region around their breweries. They were seen as essential outlets for their beer and in most cases the only route to get their product to market. To that end, the pubs were cash cows. They were to the brewers, what petrol stations are to the global oil companies. It made sense to invest in the premises, to make more people want to come and drink there, and to treat the publican fairly. The more beer he sold the more profit the brewers made. Sadly, a monopolistic situation developed through multiple mergers, acquisitions and takeovers until a ‘big six’ breweries controlled half the pubs in the late 1980s. Government legislation forced them to sell off much of their estates and restricted pub ownership by brewing companies. It also imposed certain rights on publicans to stock guest beers. With hindsight, it wasn’t a massive success…
By the mid-2000s around half the nation's pub stock had come into the hands of Pubcos. Pubco's took a different view on pubs. They were no longer essential community facilities and irreplaceable artefacts of the nation’s great heritage but more benign commercial real estate used as assets to leverage credit and capital, in order to buy yet more assets, to be bought and sold in future as seen fit, on the whim of hedge fund investors. The most significant ones still in existence today are the 'big six'; Punch, Enterprise, Admiral, Marstons, Greene King, Star. These firms, to a differing extent, act more like estate-owning companies interested in hard-nosed commercial lets
rather than their self-styled image of cuddly brewers and business partners to the UK's hardworking publicans. Without exception, they all swelled their estates to unsustainable levels during the good times and it caught up with them after the credit crunch. The only way to stay afloat was to milk their tenants for every last drop, asset strip and flog off the estate to developers. It was not just the poorer performing pubs they sold off, but any pub in the estate where a developer would offer them short-term cash that they felt was a better bet than (say) the next 5 years’ rent.
Protection of Land Use via the Planning System
The planning system, until 2012, was shamefully weak. It was strengthened in 2012 by the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and again in 2015 with the revision of the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) on 6th April which gives added protection to pubs which are registered or nominated as Assets of Community Value. Yet pubs still close at a rate of 31 each week and we regularly see planners hoodwinked by developer spin and, often reluctantly, wring their hands whilst granting permission for demolition of our heritage and culture and replacement with luxury flats or mini supermarkets and a retort of ‘shame nobody used it, ah well’. The truth is a lot more complex.
Certain changes of use require planning consent. If it is proposed to convert a pub into houses or flats, this change is subject to consent, which means the local planning authority have the opportunity to apply local and national policy, which will include some degree (rarely enough) of protection with aims to safeguard community facilities against development. But the planning system is a balance. The harm caused by the closure and loss of the community facility, needs to be balanced against the planning gain of the additional housing provision. Local authorities have tough targets to deliver on new housing and often take the easy option by believing the developer when he argues the pub is no longer viable. Councillors and Council officers are rarely au fait with the complex economics of the pub sector and the underlying reasons behind a perceived lack of viability.
In other cases, the change of use is allowed via permitted development, and so regardless of any Council policies to save pubs, they do not have the opportunity to apply them! This is why, in 2014 alone, two pubs turned into supermarket convenient stores every week. Pubs are undoubtedly worth more to their owners in alternative use. This would be true for most buildings,
and indeed green spaces, parks, lakes, places of worship, cinemas, art galleries, museums, cemeteries, national parks and so on. The most profitable uses of land are derived from residential and high value retail. Pubs are marginal businesses for a variety of reasons from duty and business rates to high fixed overheads derived from stock liabilities and staff wages. In spite of this, pubs make money. Pubs are not charities. Certain land uses do not make money at all and in fact present a constant cost burden e.g. libraries and swimming pools. Yet they are important as they are facilities that communities value and they contribute to the vibrancy and diversity of our neighbourhoods. If money alone was allowed to rule the day, every scrap of
Britain would be housing. There would be nowhere to meet one’s neighbours, to socially interact, to let one’s hair down on a Friday night after a hard week. And most importantly, there would be nowhere to enjoy that other Great British invention; cask ale. That is why the planning system exists! Planning was nationalised in 1947 precisely to ensure that communities and their elected representatives had some control in shaping their local areas. The National Planning Act recognised that free market economics alone would serve only those with capital and wealth whilst marginalising the rest of society.
If pubs are being ripened up for a secret auction, they are often deliberately run down to an extent that all custom is marginalised and goes elsewhere. In other cases, struggling publicans with 18 months left on their lease earning less than minimum wage having exhausted their savings simply cannot invest. They receive no help from their so-called business partner. In some cases, they get wilful hindrance! The media, members of the public, politicians (with a few exceptions) and opinion-formers all swallow the lie. Make no mistake, it is a lie. It is the easiest thing in the world to run a pub badly. When pubs are freed from the strangle-hold of Pubco greed and contempt, given love, care, a little investment, and placed in responsible hands, it has been proven time and again that premises can be completely transformed. The correct operator, who knows the community and the area, and offers something that people want; that special something that supermarkets cannot offer, underpinned by decent food and punctuated with quality beer, wine and conversation, in a comfortable environment, can exceed all expectations.
A Question of Viability?
To avoid the issue of turkeys failing to vote for Christmas, it should not be about proving viability, but the agent of change (developer, supermarket, care home, bookies, Mosque etc) needs to prove non-viability! The smart Councils are starting to insist on this. Many publicans have the rug pulled from under them whilst operating profitable businesses, but their figures will be misleading due to the effect of the tie and the fact that the harder they work, the less they keep, and the more goes to the Pubco. What a previous incumbent was or was not doing is totally irrelevant. If somebody has ran a pub badly, why not let someone new have a try? Pubs are viable in the right hands, but those hands do not get the opportunity to acquire pubs when stitch-up deals happen with developers. The question that should be asked is why were these pubs (31 each week) not advertised at a fair market price, free of tie and restrictive covenant, with discount reflecting their state of disrepair and the investment needed? The owners always want the highest price for an asset! This is natural in human terms but does not fit well with the big society and this is where the planning system is failing us, badly. St Paul's Cathedral would be worth many times more as a casino. The Church of England does not sell it because they know the planners would not allow it. But pubs are fair game. It's wrong and we need a big shift in attitude whilst we still have some left.
A Question of Greed
Finally, the operation of the tie and the grossly unfair tied leases are manipulated to contrive non-viability where the freeholder wants the pub use erased to pave the way for demolition or conversion. Tenants with the Pubcos might be on a 10, 15 or 25 years lease, some of them old enough to be renewals of brewery leases before the beer orders of 1989 e.g. Bass-Charrington owned lots of pubs but in the 1990s sold them all to Enterprise and Punch. The leases went with them, as did the sitting tenants. Gradually, at rent review, the new owners have hiked up the rent to obscene levels and restricted choice on tied products whilst giving nothing back in support.
Many tied tenants pay as much as twice the market rate for draught beer since they are obliged to buy it through their freeholder. For over a decade, the Pubcos have been offloading pubs with sitting tenants who have perhaps 1-4 years left. The new owner typically wants flats, especially in London and the South East, so needs to try to "prove" to the Council that the business is failing. He can trot out the old line on the smoking ban, religion, demographics, drink driving laws, supermarket competition etc. He can restrict the tenant's choice to one or two draught products and crank the prices up to drive the publican under. One developer in Spitalfields made the publican rise the price of Guinness from £3.70 a pint to £5.80 overnight to maintain the same level of gross profit, all through forcing him to pay more for the keg through a beer supply agency set up by Punch Taverns specifically to fulfil this extortionate role! Of course the publican discontinued Guinness as nobody would pay that when it was £3.10 in the JD Wetherspoon down the road. He then lost some customers; drop-ins calling by see a limited choice and decide to go elsewhere. Regulars cannot afford to come as regularly. The business is in decline. This is precisely what the developer wanted. The publican will then, in desperation, sell the remaining years on his lease for below market value, surrender and move out, quite often bankrupt and homeless. The developer can then present an empty "failed" pub to the Council and demand planning permission for this empty, unloved, former public house. Councillors swallow it most of the time, unless there is an
active campaign there to rally round and object. We have lost thousands of pubs by such underhanded means. The vicious cycle then perpetuates when folk say ‘shame all the pubs are shutting but they cannot compete with supermarkets’ and people tell themselves the pub game is dead, and consequently stop using pubs, which affects the good ones as well as the bad (there is no such thing as a bad pub - just bad management!), and the industry is further in decline. It is not that pubs are not viable. On the contrary, pubs have been viable for hundreds of years and have mostly evolved and responded to changing consumer tastes and behaviours. What the new generation of pub estate owners, who got in over their heads mean is that the buildings are more viable when put to alternative, higher value uses. This has little to do with viability and everything to do with greed.
The Future for Pubs
The past performance of sold, converted or demolished pubs is not the story here; it's the longterm survival and sustainability of the British pub, as a holistic institution, and how campaigners are making slow progress in the right direction. Chiefly the two measures are A) Planning Reform and B) Pubco Reform, the latter being addressed by the Small Business Act 2015 and the introduction of a statutory code, pubs adjudicator, and the Market Rent Only (MRO) option.
There are a number of brave entrepreneurs who are shaking up the game. It's very difficult for them to penetrate this racket but occasionally they rescue a pub from the grips of Pubco mismanagement and turn it around. There is also a phenomenal growth in the opening of so called ‘Micro Pubs’. There are well over 1000 in Britain and these are defined as traditional communal spaces specialising in decent beer with no entertainment or distractions other than conversation and social dialogue. They are proving popular and ironically one of the chief barriers to their proliferation is the need to obtain planning consent as they typically seek to establish themselves in small premises like shops and offices.
It is true that people do not use the pub as much as they did in the 1960s, or even the 1980s. Overall volumes of beer continue to decline. Social habits do change and evolve and the market needs to respond to this. Pubs are not given a fair chance. Their unscrupulous and greedy owners have no interest or aspiration in their long-term survival. Furthermore, the weak planning
system continues to be exploited by aggressive developers who are able to outbid any publican who has a more realistic appreciation of the true market value, as opposed to a development hope value. In spite of this there remains a fundamental fondness for the pub within British society. There is nothing else quite like it. It is a social leveller, where people from all backgrounds, classes, cultures and faiths are able to mix in a shared space, where all are treated equally. Whether it be a christening, engagement, wedding, graduation, new job, promotion, sporting win, retirement, birthday or a funeral, life’s ups and downs are celebrated and commiserated in the pub. Is this enough to sustain them? No. A pub must be for life, not just for Christmas. The economics of the industry and the high costs of running and staffing a pub mean that for many, a visit to the pub is now a luxury rather than an everyday essential. In this regard, food sales are driving growth and in a good many cases, a food offering is vital for the survival of pubs.
The government could and should do much more to assist publicans. The tax loopholes exploited by supermarkets could easily be closed. VAT in the hospitality sector could be cut to 5% or better still scrapped! Beer duty in the UK remains amongst the highest in Europe. The National Planning Policy Framework could take a stronger lead on promoting the community cohesion derived from well-managed pubs and insist on robust evidence that a pub is simply no longer required before entertaining consent for an alternative use. Such measures would redress the market and bring about fairness, deterring developers from over-paying and hence out-bidding well-meaning publicans.
It is hoped that the introduction of the statutory code and the Market Rent Only Option, along with further proper planning policies, will create the right framework for those in the most noble and selfless of professions, to continue in the fine spirit and tradition of the last few centuries, and keep the beer, wine and conversation flowing for generations to come. There is one very simple and highly enjoyable thing that each one of us can do to contribute to the survival of pubs. Go down your local now. Order a pint. Enjoy it. Chat to your neighbours and friends. Stay for another pint. Perhaps another. Buy the bar tender a drink, they work very hard. Have one more. Perhaps another. Behave yourself. Repeat as many nights as you can afford to.
About the Author
James Watson is a campaigner, activist and pub evangelist. He has enjoyed visiting British pubs since hewas a small child and has witnessed the worst years of pub attrition from the late 1990s to the present day.
Originally raised in a Midlands mining town, where pubs played a large part in his childhood, he moved to London at the age of 18 to pursue a career as a professional engineer. In every part of London, his local pub was closed, sold, converted to flats or demolished. After years of this repeating pattern, James lost his patience with the destroyers of pubs and refused to accept the inevitability of pub closures. He resolved to expose the truth behind the aggressive targeting of pubs and to hold local authorities to account to stop this needless destruction. He was a founder member of the campaign to save his local, The Chesham Arms in Hackney, which raged for almost 1000 days and finally defeated a property developer. The pub eventually reopened when the developer ran out of options and granted a lease to a young publican. James is convinced that a stronger planning system is vital for the future sustainability and protection of the Great British Pub. He serves as the Greater London region pub protection advisor for the Campaign for Real Ale.
And I'm happy to say that James is also a friend of mine, J Mark Dodds, the Pub Persuader.
|photo: Evening Standard|
What is happening to the Elephant & Castle pub is an outrage. It's NOT the squatters in a commercial property that are the outrage. NO. The owner of the pub and Foxton's Estate Agents are angling to make this pub into an estate agent shop touting unaffordable homes to offshore companies owned by people who hang out in tax havens and have no intention of ever living in the properties they buy. That pub is a total GEM. It should be the centre of a thriving community not the start of the downward slide of the whole area into a blanded homogenised vile super wealthy upper middle class enclave of exclusive yuppiedom. It is an OUTRAGE!
That pub is a precious thing. It MUST be preserved, reinvigorated and brought back into vibrant use AS A PUB!
I've been a south east London publican for decades. I know the area well. I set up shop in Camberwell in 1995 when people told me: 'You are insane,' 'no one will go there' 'it's on the front line', 'there's NO MARKET DEMAND' 'you'll fail'. I BROKE good quality beer wine and food in south east London when the area was a catering wasteland. Six months later May 1996 saw my pub, The Sun and Doves as Time Out Runner Up Pub of the Year. Two years later we were runner up Evening Standard Best Pub of 2008 (Eros Award) and one of the busiest pubs in south London. I know the pub business well. I know what makes pubs tick and what makes them work for the people and the places they serve... I know a lot about good pubs and I know a lot about bad pubs: and I know fully there's no such thing as a bad pub, only a pub that's badly run.
The Elephant and Castle pub is a potentially massive asset to the whole south east London area. It's at the gateway to south east London, it's iconic, steeped in sense of place and it should NEVER have been allowed to fall into the hands of people who let it slide into a being a shut pub. I don't know the details of the particular site but it's highly likely it was owned by one of the major asset stripping criminally badly run tied pubco's - Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns, Admiral Taverns among others for the last twenty years or so; being run into the ground and the state it finds itself in now.
The E&C is in a brilliant position, it has HUGE amounts of potential as a pub, this is a fantastic opportunity for it to be rejuvenated into a real Public House that's unusually fit for the 21st century. Where it is this pub could successfully appeal to ALL types of customer and be really financially successful. Diverse, exciting, multi faceted and wonderfully colourful, busy, friendly and fantastic! There is NO EXCUSE for it to stop being a pub, especially now the area is the focus for massive regeneration. A well organised, well run local pub with loads of local produce ales and beers backed up by great amenities and facilities and real proper south London pub entertainment would be a pivotal change for the whole area.
Turning it into an estate agents is an irony beyond irony. The last thing this area needs is an estate agents. The properties will fly off the book from all over the world anyway. The only benefit of an estate agency in the middle here is that the staff won't have to break a sweat to get to their desk.
Save this uniquely positioned pub and make it into a brilliant contemporary local and let it do what well run pubs are brilliant at and what Britain is best known for: make it A Public House for the world to remember, a community hub for Elephant and Castle where people of all backgrounds and outlooks can socialise together and meet cheek by jowl in great surroundings..
Good Communities NEED Good Pubs. Make this one the centre of Elephant and Castle's Future Community!
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Halloumi, sliced thin then grilled or dry fried then used as the crowning part of a salad on top of mixed spinach rocket chicory little gem watercress lamb's leaf type leaves, fine sliced red onion, toms, boiled new pots and green beans (anything you like really) and garlic croutons is FANTASTEFIC.
Dressing: in a lidded jar put: 2 parts (a part being maybe a 50ml measure) really good virgin olive oil (Lidl or Aldi) 1 part sunflower oil, 2 parts cider vinegar, good heavy pinch of herbs de Provence, salt, ground black pepper, teaspoonful light runny honey, tablespoon Dijon mustard, 2 cloves crushed fresh garlic or a big pinch as much as a teaspoonful of garlic powder.
Screw lid down. Shake like crazy to emulsify. Taste and adjust oil / vinegar content to suit. Shake try and spoon over salad.
Sit down; eat.
You will rejoice
Wednesday, June 03, 2015
Cyclists are people highly exposed to the road environment, extremely vulnerable to external impact and, when it comes to basics, very fragile objects.
Motorists are people disassociated from their external environment cocooned by heavy, powerfully propelled metal boxes.
Many motorists disregard and dismiss cyclists, are blind toward cyclists and treat cyclists they come across as irritatingly slow objects blocking or impeding the motorist's imperial way.
Humans are all prone to gormless moments, all capable of fault, all of making blunderingly stupid absences of attention and all capable of these while on the road in charge of a vehicle whether self propelled or motorised.
What ever the situation, whoever makes the mistake whether cyclist or motorist, a mistake on the road puts any cyclist involved in any incident in a position of extreme vulnerability against the motorist's possibly being momentarily inconvenienced.
Cyclists need to be treated with greater care and caution than do motorists, at all times.
Saturday, May 16, 2015
So, he ordered it and asked me to 'ask the chef to put some extra chilli in it if possible'.
Asking the chef who was on then, a guy called Adrian who behaved as if he took a lot of many different drugs and was always pissed, asking Adrian anything at all during service, even something like 'when's your mum's birthday Adrian?' was like poking an angry bull with a stick while waving a red rag in its nostrils.
And the man tried it, said, more of a sigh of satisfaction really, 'that's MUCH better, thanks' and ate it with corn muffins and bread like it was mushroom soup.
I went back into the kitchen and waiters and chefs were looking through the pass to see the guy's reaction and everyone was looking surprised... Adrian and I became closer after that, it kind of bonded us a bit.
Saturday, May 09, 2015
In support of this a friend, who's a Conservative voter, pointed out:
The problem lies with the fact that everyone who's physically or mentally disabled, in a bad place because life has brought that to them is characterised by the lowest common denominator: the assumption which is they are all taking the piss.
Some people most definitely do take the piss, but that's not many compared to the millions who are decent people being persecuted who certainly do not have any freedom of choice.
Freedom of choice is illusory anyway. By far the majority of people in the UK aspired to a government that's not Tory but we still get Tory. The same applied when Blair was elected. Blair promised before his election that if Labour were voted in he would invite other parties to be involved in government. The majority he got was so great he decided not to do that. That was the biggest mistake for democracy in the history of modern politics. Power made him dismiss the promise of creating a far better, inclusive, cooperative way of operating politics. Irrational one size fits all Political dogma is what screws society. Society is a complex, nuanced and hugely intricate beast. There are no simple solutions that come out of soundbites. It starts with education and no government has had the nerve to tackle the deep problems of society that begin at birth and run through our childhoods because people, adults, don't respect the people we were when we were being underserved by society when we were children. Most of us got a pretty rotten education that did nothing much more than train us how to work on production line or behind a counter. Education needs to teach people to understand the world around us and our relationship to it, and to each other, and the responsibilities that go hand in hand with the fact that life is not a soundbite from a Persil ad
Anyway no one in power is going to listen to anyone who's got practical solutions for changing society for the better. That's not what they're in power for. They're in power to make sure that the people and corporations who own everything are protected from harm and have their rights to do whatever they want in order to secure the legitimacy of their wealth and power enhanced. The tail must wag the dog. Forever. That's the way the power elites have always had it and that's the way it will remain as long as politicians buy into it and sustain it.
I have voted Green, and known that I was 'throwing away my vote', in the last three elections because no mainstream parties are providing the policy and strategy that People, and the Planet, need. The Greens are the only credible party as far as I'm concerned, even though they are characterised by unhelpful mainstream voters who clearly know everything about our ecosystem and the global economy as 'loony lefties' and they have no hope of winning seats or power. My vote is a tiny indication to the local Labour party who always get in no matter what is happening elsewhere, that there are views that are not toeing Capitalism's line.