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Protecting Camden’s Pubs

Turning our boozers into Assets of Community Value

Our urban landscape is littered with the traces of former boozers. These storied outlines of long-lost watering holes – now converted to flats, burger chains or whatever – can still be made out on so many of our street corners, proud shadows hinting at the city’s beer-soaked past.

It’s been a horrendous few years for the Great British pub. A staggering 383 of them closed across the UK in the first half of 2023 alone. Fortunately, the London Borough of Camden is arguably blessed with some of the richest pickings of decent boozers anywhere in the country today. But with the pressure of property prices, rates, rent, finding staff, soaring energy bills and beer costs, the position of all pubs remains highly precarious.

No matter how much the public cherish and laud our public houses, without vigilance and active ongoing support, plenty more of the remaining irreplaceable social spaces will surely become extinct.

⚖️ What is an ACV?

An asset of community value (ACV) is a property or land in England with special importance to a local community. It can be nominated and registered for additional protection from development under Parliament’s Localism Act 2011. 

After a particularly bad run of smaller local pubs sadly being lost, often against the will of the vast majority of very vocal residents, some of Camden’s Neighbourhood Forums, Resident’s Associations and other community groups started to strategically identify and nominate the boroughs pubs for Assets of Community Value status.

It’s not exactly a heritage-level protection, but it does give local people the chance to block the worst instincts of rapacious redevelopers. “If the asset is put up for sale, the community gets the chance to come up with a proposal, as well as six months to find the finances to make a bid,” explains Rebecca Simovic, who has been organising the ACV campaign at Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum. “After this period the owner is free to sell to whoever they like and at whatever price, so whilst an ACV award does not mean that pubs cannot be sold or redeveloped, it buys some time for a community to line up efforts to save it, if the will is there.

No every application is successful, and listings expire, so community groups need to refresh them every five years, but there are currently 15 ACV pubs in the borough, and if Rebecca and her team’s plans work out, there will soon be plenty more.

ACV map of Camden

Here’s an embed of the council’s Open Data plotting of all ACVs on a map – use the filters to see the 15 current pubs that have the status, and those that have lost it or been unsuccessful.

Having successfully nominated five great Kentish Town pubs as ACVs back in 2020 – the Lady Hamilton, Pineapple, Vine, Grafton and Rose & Crown – the KTNF and partner group Kentish Town Road Action have now identified more targets.

“Camden pubs form a unique cultural experience of the area,” says Rebecca. “They so often provide much more than just a place to meet, drink and eat – although, of course, these are excellent things too! But it is the things that happen alongside these functions that tend to build a feeling of social cohesion and wellbeing.

“Visually, they tie the community together as a series of recognisable landmarks on the high street or a welcoming beacon in quieter residential streets. They can provide spaces for local community groups to meet, be a venue for quizzes, music evenings and charity events or host games or sporting events like darts and dominoes. These activities bring people together.”

The Campaign for Real Ale have been torchbearers for protecting decent pubs for many years. Joanne Scott is Pub Protection Officer for the North London CAMRA branch. “I monitor pub closures, planning and licence applications for LB Camden,” she tells us, of how they support sensitive redevelopments that don’t change the character of a pub beyond reasonable recognition.

“We supported the planning application to redevelop The Constitution, for example, especially the retention of the live music venue in the basement of the pub. It’s great to see that the pub is finally due to reopen in early March.

“However, we objected to the redevelopment of The Unicorn on Camden Road, as the proposed moving of the music area to the basement may lead to the loss of the grassroots venue to the local community.

Customers may be less likely to visit the venue if music was only played in the basement. The Unicorn Camden Live was part of a national initiative launched by the Music Venue Trust to prevent the closure of 100s of independent music venues in August 2020 and they successfully raised money to save the venue.”

The KTNF and KTRA have now decided to target a new group of pubs, including Tufnell Park’s Junction Tavern, Kentish Town Road trio the Bull & Gate, Assembly House and Abbey Tavern, and backstreeter the Lion & Unicorn, where the upstairs theatre provides a strong additional community resource.

This Camden pub was chosen for a pilot for the second phase of applications for this reason. “Getting feedback from the pub community is a critical way to assess the impact of the establishment beyond the list of events on their websites,” says KTNF’s Rebecca.

“It’s a chance to hear ways that the pub might reach out to different age groups, involve locals with a diverse range of backgrounds, and be a welcoming and inclusive space for the local community. If we believe that the pub meets the criteria for a Listing then we make the application to Camden Council. Unfortunately, the owners of The Lion and Unicorn, Young’s Brewery, are not keen for us to distribute and collect questionnaires within the pub, so we are hoping to reach out to  customers via Camdenist.”

If you have view and experiences to contribute about the Lion & Unicorn on Gaisford St, please fill in this online survey.

SAVED

The Constitution

Constitution pub refurbshment

Having sat derelict for four years, this canalside gem of a local has been given a multi-million pound makeover by Young’s that will transform it from a charmingly down at heel boozer into a swish foodie destination. Feedback from pub fans so far remains positive, in only to see that the old girl hasn’t become flats. The retention of the music venue is also a big plus. 

Check out our recent sneak peak inside the pub during it’s massive refurb , feature before/after photos.

SAVED?

The Black Cap

After a grueling 9-year battle, including weekly vigils outside the boarded-up front doors, Camden’s legendary LGBT+ venue looks like it might have got a reprieve. If so, it will be a huge victory for all involved, and a text book case of using ACV powers to block an unpopular change that would impact the previous operations of a vital social space.

Instead, the owners have had to produce plans for retaining the full drag performance space and improvements to the building as a public house. This win is particularly important at a time when the capital has lost a huge number of LGBT+ venues and their vital role as safe, welcoming spaces over recent years. 

As we’ve excitedly reported recently, The Constitution is one of five(!) pubs set to return to life in Camden after various periods of being shuttered. “This shows there are still buyers/landlords that believe Public Houses can make successful businesses,” agrees Rebecca.

“The reopening of the Constitution along with its live music venue in the cellar, after four years of sitting empty, suggests that big brewers like Young’s consider there is an appetite for pubs off the high street as well as spaces for live gigs. If the reopening of The Lady Hamilton goes ahead this will be particularly gratifying, as the KTNF worked hard for its ACV status and its renewed position halfway up the high street will act as a positive sign that pubs can be revived.”

Perhaps even more encouraging is the proposed return of the Duke of St Albans at Parliament Hill, which has been operating as a restaurant for the last two decades, and backpacker favourite The Lord Southampton. Tucked away in a residential area off Malden Rd, it is exactly the kind of public house that ends up converted into flats, so its promised return as a boozer is a minor miracle in today’s hostile climate.

Grand daddy of all the soon-to-return pubs though is Camden Town’s Black Cap. Awarded ACV status before it was unceremoniously closed after 40 years as a leading drag venue back in 2015, the tireless commitment of passionate local LGBT+ groups has ensured that the landlord’s original plans for converting most of the building to residential have been curtailed, and the new plans potentially return it to its full former all-singing, all-prancing glory.

“The successful Black Cap campaign has proved that the combination of determined community action working alongside the council with ACV status, can make a huge difference to the eventual outcome,” says Rebecca. “It sends a message that if the community wants a pub to stay, there are ways to fight for it!”

⚖️ What is the ‘Agent of Change’ Principle?
It requires that those behind a new development are responsible for mitigating the impacts of that change, so in theory, if new flats go up next to a rowdy music pub, it’s up to the developer to soundproof the windows rather than the pub lose its licence due to complaints.  

Of course, not everyone is happy to see a pub thriving if it’s doing so a little too boisterously right on their doorstep. The tensions between residents and nearby pubs has ramped up greatly over recent years, creating another huge problem as the threat of loosing licenses hangs heavy over every noise complaint. 

Alongside ACVs, the Mayor of London and his Night Czar, Amy Lame  have been keen to play up the Agent of Change principle, which aims to protect noisier traditional pubs and music venues, from having their operations curtailed when posh flats suddenly rise up right next door to them.

In the case of The Black Cap, residents are already objecting to a return to live music, so once again, the pub looks set to be a litmus test for the protections and compromises that are required to protect culture while ensuring everyone has the right to a good night’s sleep.

CAMRA’s Joanne is already all over this. “We support the campaigners, We Are The Black Cap, who are behind the campaign to reopen the pub and the plans they have put forward for it as a community space for LGBTQ+ people. The beer garden and first floor roof terrace are part of the assets of the pub and should be protected. The residents living in new developments nearby should be mindful of the ‘Agent of Change’ policy, which protects live music venues from noise complaints.

“There aren’t many pubs on Camden High Street with outdoor space, so this will be an important asset for the pub, which will generate additional revenue. The pub and venue has an active ACV, which is a material planning consideration. We would request that the council grant the Certificate of Lawfulness, so the Black Cap can reopen.”

Ultimately, an investment in bringing the pub back to life should certainly include noise mitigation measures and more. As these tools for protecting pubs are developed and improved, the mediation of disputes over noise, rubbish and anti-social behaviour also need to be improved for all concerned. 

We all seem to know the immense social benefit that our boozers continue to provide, against quite daunting odds. And while the obvious thing you can do to support them is to drop in for a pint or some food as often as you can, it’s also about us all creating a supportive approach to pubs that doesn’t see them as unruly nuisances at the first sign of a broken bottle.

We’d all be a lot poorer if many more of them vanish. 

Colonel Fawcett Camden pub offerd
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AT RISK

Camden pubs with uncertain futures

Lock Tavern Camden pub offers
The Lock Tavern

The small pub co behind this Chalk Farm’s classic recently went into receivership, so the administrators are currently running the place. It remains a gem, so hopefully a more secure future awaits.

The Monarch

Just along the road, this once wild music boozer sits boarded up after a bizarre revamp into a sports bar cum co-working space that failed. No signs of life at the moment.

The White Horse

South End Green’s handsome Victorian drinking palace had changed hands a few times, with the most recent ‘wine bar’ incarnation defeated by lockdown and it’s been shuttered ever since. 

The Harrison

Now ACV protected, this backstreet King’s Cross music pub might have been saved from the developers, but the viability of its daily operations remain a huge challenge.

Admiral Mann 

Brecknock Rd’s tiny trad boozer was closed by ambitious developers in 2014, was given ACV status by concerned locals soon after, but the 5 year notice has now expired and the building sits empty, the situation an impossible deadlock, for now.

George IV 

A pretty ivy-clad corner pub on a Kentish Town back street, it previously did the cheapest pint in the area, but failed to reopen after Covid. Perhaps the proposed arrival of a Camden Film Quarter on the Council depot opposite will revive it’s obvious potential, one day.

Camden Stores

After years operated as a branch of curry chain Masala Zone, the famous Stores currently lies empty, despite its enviable Parkway location.

The Unicorn

As in our main report, this music pub is currently attempting to find a compromise that suits all parties, with a supermarket proposal already having been rejected – watch this space.

Elephant’s Head

Historic Camden High St pub named after the area’s original brewery was sold by its long-term owners last year, and mystery remains over who or what will take over.

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