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Carlton Tavern reopens six years after planning ruling that campaigners hope will prevent developers demolishing other sites
Standing next to the rubble of the Carlton Tavern, its patrons thought that this was just another brazen example of developers skirting the law to turn their pub into profit.
Bulldozers had sheared away the wall of the 1920s west London pub, with its distinctive tiled signage, to reveal the fully stocked bar and darts trophies still on display.
But the Carlton’s story did not follow the usual plot, where the developer presents the fait accompli to the local authority and pays a fine before pressing ahead with the redevelopment and counting their profits.
Instead, after a dogged six-year campaign by locals, the Carlton Tavern will reopen next month – lockdown permitting – after the developers were ordered to rebuild the pub “brick by brick”, a ruling that pub campaigners say has set an extraordinary precedent.
“People said it was impossible,” said Polly Robertson, a leading member of the Rebuild the Carlton Tavern campaign. “Many people said, ‘Polly, it’s not worth it, nothing’s going to happen’. And I just thought, no – I’m not going to let it lie.”
The reopening comes on 12 April, the day that Covid-19 restrictions are due to be lifted in England to let pubs and restaurants serve drinks and meals outdoors. It is a day that will be celebrated by England’s 33,305 pubs, but by none more keenly than at the Carlton in Maida Vale.
The Carlton Tavern’s last orders were in April 2015. After being denied planning permission to convert it into 10 flats, and two days before English Heritage was due to recommend the pub be granted Grade-II listed status, the owners ordered its demolition.
Robertson and 5,300 other locals, including several local councillors, mobilised to persuade Westminster council to act.
It ordered the owners, CTLX, to rebuild the Carlton brick by brick. A planning inquiry the following year confirmed the decision, ruling that the pub should be rebuilt “in facsimile”, from the red bricks to the distinctive tiled pub name.
“They said it would be too difficult to do, but we had an answer for that,” Robertson said. “We had a suspicion before the demolition that they would do something, so we asked English Heritage to think about listing it. They took a plaster cast of every tile, they took pictures and documented everything.”
With nowhere left to turn, the developers started the rebuild. “And to be fair to [CTLX], they have done amazing work,” Robertson said. “It looks fantastic.”
Although praise for the demolishers goes only so far. “I doubt they will be [at the reopening]. The community would eat them alive,” she said.
The Carlton Tavern’s wooden doors, fittings and tiled signs are remarkably similar to photographs taken before 2015. The new leaseholders are Tom Rees and Ben Martin, who set up Homegrown Pubs last year, and they are still putting the finishing touches to the fit-out.
“Lots of parts of the bar and the fireplace, the bannister, have been reclaimed from the rubble,” Rees said. “The pub tells its story from the half-broken fixtures that we’ve got. You can see bits of broken wood – it’s not all perfect, which we really love because it gives character and charm to the building.”
Rees and Martin have restored the cellar, which will be stocked by local London brewers including the Camden Town Brewery, Five Points from Hackney, the London Brewing Co, and Anspach & Hobday.
“Ben and I have been running pubs and restaurants for a long time, and we decided to set up our company,” Rees said. “I live locally and I knew about the pub. This has happened multiple times in different places and there’s never been a result like this.
“From the outside, it seems like a totally mad thing to do – setting up a pub company during the middle of the pandemic. But, from the inside, landlords have had the upper hand with leaseholders for ever, so this was an opportunity to level the playing field across the industry.”
The new Carlton will focus more on food, although Rees fights shy of the word “gastropub”.
“We want it to be a great little boozer where you can come and have some pints of cask any day of the week, but we’ll also have a nice dining area out the back. We hope we can be everything to everyone.”
James Watson, the pub protection adviser for the Campaign for Pubs, advised the Carlton campaign. “I never imagined that I would see a planning inspector order a developer to put back what he’d just knocked down, to look exactly as it was. I thought the developer would get a slap on the wrist, a £6,000 fine. But I was flabbergasted – and it has set an incredibly useful precedent. Other planning inspectors will remember it, and so will developers.”
Watson was involved in campaigning for legislation in 2017 that went some way to stopping pubs from being converted into shops under permitted development rules – full planning permission is now required.
“Most developers tend to be slightly smarter than sending in the bulldozers,” he said. “The age-old trick is to take some tiles off the roof and let the rain in. The beams rot, it collapses and they say to the council, ‘This is a derelict site that needs to be rebuilt as flats.’”
Councils in Cambridge and London are questioning this method more and more, Watson said. “They’re challenging these Trojan horse attacks on pubs, where they say they’re going to put a bike shed in the basement and a gym upstairs and, suddenly, your pub space is just a lock-up.
“We need other councils around the country to do the same,” he said. “Planning officers need to be wise to these tricks.”