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20 February 2020

“This street was a hub”: The quiet conversion of pubs into flats in the south of England

Little-known landlords like the Wellington Pub Company have been forcing pubs to close across the country, but communities are fighting back.

By Eleanor Peake

Joseph Ryan wasn’t surprised when he received the news. He has run the White Hart in New Cross in south London alongside his brother Patrick for three years now. The pub is popular with locals during the day, but most of its revenue comes from the late-night licence that lets him sell drinks while local DJs play until the early hours. So when Joseph heard that his landlord was planning to turn the upstairs of the pub into flats, he knew its future was in jeopardy. 

“If the planning is granted, the pub will have to stop serving at 10:30pm, customers will have to be out by 11pm – no live music. That kills the business and it kills the pub. So it’s just not going to be viable,” says Joseph. “But still,” he adds. “I wasn’t surprised”.

This is the third time one of his pubs has been threatened with closure at the hands of his landlord, the Wellington Pub Company.

The largely unknown Wellington Pub Company owns approximately 850 tenanted pubs. It is owned by David and Simon Reuben, two brothers valued at over £18.6bn. According to the 2019 Sunday Times Rich List, this makes them the second richest family in the UK. They also rank second on the Times’s 2019 tax haven elite list and have donated to the Conservative Party.

The company rents to publicans under a free-of-tie agreement, which means they can buy beer and all other supplies from wherever they choose without trading restrictions. This arrangement is designed to give pub managers more autonomy over how their pubs are run, but it can also leave them vulnerable to the property plans of their landlord. The Wellington Pub Company is the largest free-of-tie pub estate in the UK. It has not responded to questions about the specific cases of pub closures reported in this article.

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Originally from Ireland, Joseph and Patrick Ryan started renting pubs in London in the mid-2010s. By 2017, the brothers rented the Bear in Camberwell, the Fox in Dalston and the White Hart in New Cross, all from the Wellington Pub Company. 

In 2017, they received the first call from the company informing them of redevelopments. They were told that the Bear in Camberwell would have to close its doors to make room for renovations, as the company wanted to turn the upper floors of the pub into private apartments.

At that time, the brothers were advised by their solicitors that they would almost certainly lose any legal battle with the company. “We were told from the start that we had no chance of winning. They said the best thing would be to strike a deal to get the bottom of the pub back when the renovations had finished. We would lose upstairs but then at least you won’t lose the pub,” Joseph tells me. Originally, the brothers were promised the return of the pub’s basement by mid-2018. Two years later, the pub still sits empty. 

In 2018, the Fox in Dalston was also forced to close despite its popularity. Again, the Wellington Pub Company took back control of the property to convert the upstairs of the pub into private apartments. This time, the Ryan brothers were given only a week’s notice. Like the Bear in Camberwell, the property today remains vacant.

“The Fox was on Kingsland Road. That street used to be a hub,” says Joseph.

“It had a really buzzing atmosphere, like Shoreditch. There were four restaurants that were adjacent to the Fox. They’re now closed. In a few years, it has become a no-go kind of place and it’s just really sad,” he says. “It really hit me and I normally wouldn’t be upset by things like that. It was weird to see the effects that losing a pub has on a community”.

Joseph and Patrick aren’t alone. In the past decade, 45 per cent of all pubs that have closed did so due to renovation plans, according to the Campaign for Real Ale pressure group (Camra). 

In August 2019, Beverly Gardner-Ponting was also contacted by her landlord the Wellington Pub Company, with whom she had been renting her pub the Giant Goram since 2015 in Lawrence Weston, a town just outside Bristol. The company informed her that she had 28 days’ notice before she would be evicted. Because she lived above the pub, she would be losing her home as well as her livelihood. The property would be sold to a construction company, with plans to develop the site into seven separate flats.

The Giant Goram is the last remaining pub in the Lawrence Weston housing estate. In recent years, the town has lost several pubs including the Long Cross, the Penpole Inn, and the Masons Arms. The building plays an important role in local life: twice a week the pub hosted a community project teaching disadvantaged children how to fix bicycles. Just the year before Gardner-Ponting was evicted, Bristol Council had put the pub on its Local List, marking it as local heritage due to “its architectural, historic and communal value”. For residents, the Giant Goram provided a vital hub in an otherwise overlooked area.

In a positive development for the residents of Lawrence Weston, on the 19 February, Bristol Council rejected the Wellington Pub Company’s planning request, citing “a lack of evidence… to demonstrate the public house is no longer economically viable and that there is no longer a need to retain the community use”.

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that non-brewing pub company landlords see their business primarily not as running pubs successfully but as buying and selling them as property investments, in the long term if not always in the short term,” says Geoff Strawbridge, a pub officer for Camra.

To help protect pubs from rising rent prices, the government introduced the Pub’s Code in 2016. But this regulation largely focuses on the big pubcos like Greene King, Marston’s, Ei Group, and Admiral. Free-of-tie pubs, like the ones rented out by Wellington, can’t rely on such strict protection.

“Since the establishment of the Pubs Code Adjudicator’s Office, which was set up to police the conduct of the most well-known pub businesses, companies like Wellington may have enjoyed less of the critical spotlight than they deserve,” says Strawbridge.

This year, two more pubs in the southeast of England have found themselves in the process of renovation by the Wellington Pub Company. The Junction Pub in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, was closed by the company in 2018. Last week, Bucks Free Press reported that plans to turn the property into flats were submitted by the company and discussed by Wycombe District Council. On 12 February, Wycombe District Council confirmed that discussions were still ongoing and had been deferred until next month. 

In East Wickham, south-east London, the company recently submitted plans to turn the Foresters Arms car park into flats. During the pre-application phase discussions with Bexley Council, the company reportedly wanted to include the pub itself in this renovation too, according to local paper the News Shopper.

When asked about this pattern, a Wellington Pub Company spokesperson said:

“The Wellington Pub Company is a long-term owner of pubs and looks to maintain them as part of communities. It does not convert trading pubs into flats, but sometimes converts the upper parts of the property into residential accommodation. This can assist the pub operator by decreasing overall costs for the demise thereby improving the long-term viability of the pub itself.”

The business strategy of the Wellington Pub Company is typical of the consistent threat facing community spaces in underfunded areas, or places with high property prices. Without a high enough revenue, the social value of a pub will always struggle to compete with the property’s market rate. But for Joseph and Patrick Ryan, the fight is on to save the White Hart.

Since last July, the brothers have successfully appealed the Wellington Pub Company’s decision, thanks to support from Lewisham Council and the 300 letters of objection sent by locals to Lewisham’s planning department. The next court hearing is on 17 March, when a final decision will be made.

“Having gone through it with other pubs we thought fuck this,” says Joseph Ryan. “Let’s fight this and see what happens.”