There was no time to remove personal belongings when the bulldozers tore into the Carlton Tavern in Kilburn. Landlady Patsy Lord was told on Monday last week that the pub would be closed for a few days while a stock-take took place. On Wednesday, the walls came crashing down. As the pub's interior was brutally exposed to the street outside, passers-by saw sporting portraits and a dart board still attached to the walls, a flatscreen television being torn from its mounting in the corner. One bystander was heard complaining that he'd left his coat inside. As the bulldozers' teeth clawed their way through the pub's fabric, a lone pint glass could still be seen standing at one of the tables. Lord described the destruction as "heartbreaking".
In London, we're getting used to our drinking establishments closing down. Barely a week goes by without a pub, club or gig venue shutting up shop - almost always to be replaced by blocks of new flats. In the last few months alone we've seen the closure of Madame JoJo's, the Joiners Arms and Plastic People. This week it was the Black Cap in Camden. Real ale group CAMRA estimates that 31 pubs close every week in the UK. It's bad enough that this happens so regularly with the permission of the authorities who are supposed to be looking out for our interests. But knocking down a pub without permission? This is a new level of bullshit.
Developer CLTX bought the Carlton Tavern last year and applied to Westminster Council for permission to knock the pub down and put a new building in its place – a block of ten flats with a smaller pub on the ground floor. The application was refused. But last week CLTX went ahead with the demolition anyway. The bulldozers were sent in just days before the pub was due to be listed – meaning the building would have been protected from redevelopment. Having a building listed is the kind of thing that developers really hate, because working with a historic building costs much more than knocking it down and starting again. In this case, it seems that CLTX decided the best plan was to get in there first and start tearing the place down.
Unsurprisingly, this has pissed a few people off. Local Conservative councillor Thomas Crockett was one of the people at the scene while the Carlton was being knocked down. He told me, "It would seem [the developers] think people will soon forget about this outrage. I don't know if they will." I asked Crockett what he thought the developer's game plan might be. He said he suspected that a decision had been taken to risk a fine on the basis that knocking the building down would make more money in the long run. "Ultimately, if a building is owned by somebody and they have the power to make more money out of it than running it as a pub, that's what seems to be happening," he said.
It's not just local councillors who are kicking off about the Carlton. The main political parties might be arguing on the national stage but, in Kilburn, they're united in anger. Tom Copley, Labour's housing policy spokesman for London, tweeted to call the developers "utter bastards" and said they should be forced to rebuild the pub. Then, in a slightly unexpected development, the Cat from Red Dwarf weighed in on the row. Actor Danny John-Jules lives just down the road and was non too impressed when he heard his local had been torn down. I asked him what the loss of the pub means to the area. "It's another nail in the coffin of community," he said.
Politicians and science-fiction sitcom stars alike seem united in agreement that knocking down a pub, without letting people first get their coats, is a dick move. But is it actually illegal? Westminster Council is seeking legal advice at the moment to find out what action, if any, it can take against the developer. In the meantime, I called a planning lawyer to find out what might happen. Simon Ricketts is a partner at law firm King & Wood Mallesons and has been named the UK's top planning lawyer for six years running. Basically, he's a good man to ask if you're not sure whether you're allowed to knock a pub down.
According to Ricketts, you most definitely are not. He told me, "First of all, you have to give six weeks' notice before you demolish a building and it's a formal offence if you don't." But, more importantly, the owner of the Carlton Tavern may have made a critical error. Just two days before the pub was demolished, new rules came in to protect pubs which have been listed as "assets of community value". The Carlton Tavern wasn't listed, but it seems that doesn't actually matter. If the developer failed to check before knocking the building down, the council can ask for the pub to be rebuilt. If the developer refuses, there's potential for an unlimited fine. "People need to be careful before they see loopholes that don't exist," said Ricketts.
We can only hope that CLTX is forced to rebuild the Carlton Tavern brick by brick. We ask developers for so little already – just look at the pitiful contributions we demand towards affordable housing. What does it mean if the financial rewards from development became so great that developers can simply ignore these demands altogether? As Danny John-Jules said, "The only thing that's going to make these guys squirm is if someone says, 'you're going to court mate'. They have bitten off more than they can chew with this one." The Carlton Tavern should stand as a reminder, that while shoebox flats in Kilburn may sell for nearly a million pounds, there are still things for which we will not stand.
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