Lewisham’s Ravensbourne Arms is closing – but why did nobody spot the warning signs?

Ravensbourne Arms

Going, going gone: The Ravensbourne Arms closes the day before Hallowe’en

Frustrated of Charlton writes… The annoying thing about writing a website like this isn’t the stories you can unearth, it’s the stories you don’t have time to unearth. With south-east London’s local press being asset-stripped, there are loads of local stories that simply aren’t seeing the light of day. I could happily spend all day doing this stuff, but nobody’s willing to pay for this kind of stuff any more.

You could see this on Wednesday night if you nipped into Greenwich Council’s regular full meeting, or if you watch it online. As ever, it was a festival of defensiveness. Angry residents raised the privatisation of musculoskeletal services at Greenwich GP surgeries (and got qualified support from councillors); a fishy-looking deal to lease the Hervey Road playing field in Kidbrooke to Blackheath rugby club (and were ignored); and Greenwich using Savills estate agents to assess 20% of its housing stock (it insists council housing isn’t under threat).

These are stories not being covered elsewhere. People have kindly been in contact with me about all these things – but operating on my own, I simply don’t have the resources to follow them up.

Thankfully, the Mercury’s sole reporter/news editor Mandy Little was in the gallery too, so hopefully some of these will get an airing. But she can’t always get down there, and there are just too many stories for one person to cover.

Over at the News Shopper, they’re moving to a system where one person effectively produces the whole paper – lovely if you want a press release to go into the paper without touching the sides, bad for actual journalism. No wonder why the journalists have been on strike again.

This means one of the checks and balances of civic society has effectively disappeared. And when they’re all caught napping, you can get a horrible surprise. So it was this week, with bad news across the borough boundary.

Last orders at the Ravensbourne

A quiet Friday afternoon in the Ravensbourne Arms

A quiet Friday afternoon in the Ravensbourne Arms

It’s emerged via social media that Lewisham’s Ravensbourne Arms pub is closing on Sunday.

It’s only been open five years, having been transformed from the grim Coach and Horses by pub outfit Antic. It’s a terrific boozer and a favourite of mine. So please indulge me here.

It also hosted the first meeting of the short-lived Lewisham branch of the National Union of Journalists, where I gave a talk about this website and the dire state of local journalism in SE London. Sadly, what remains of local journalism missed the warning signs about the Ravensbourne. They weren’t the only ones.

Antic isn’t commenting on the closure beyond a short statement thanking customers and confirming a move to new premises in the old Market Tavern/Quaggy Duck site further up Lewisham High Street.

But it’s widely believed the pub has been sold. The freeholder of the pub is, according to the Land Registry, Tavernius Limited, which is one of a network of companies with connections to other firms named after pubs trading under the Antic London brand, such as Westow House at Crystal Palace and the East Dulwich Tavern.

Companies House records for Tavernius indicate a mortgage on the Ravensbourne Arms was paid off on Wednesday, meaning a sale may have take place that hasn’t made it to the Land Registry yet. The Land Registry data also shows some property transfers around the site too.

Antic applied for flats – and got them

Ravensbourne Arms planning notice

Lewisham Council granted planning permission for flats above the Ravensbourne Arms as well as development of surrounding land twice, in 2014 and August 2015. The 2014 application saw two homes built behind the pub last year. (Unfortunately, Lewisham’s planning search function is down at the time of writing, so I can’t double-check what was in the 2014 application.)

The applications don’t mention the pub itself, but this should have rung alarm bells. Housing above pubs can be a way of securing the future of a venue (the new Catford Bridge Tavern will have flats above it). But such developments are also a very good way for developers to shut down the pub itself – these are cases that demand vigilance.

The applicant was given as “Antic London”. There is no company of this name registered at Companies House in the UK, nor in Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man. (An earlier company, Antic Limited, went into administration in 2013, with its operations being taken over by a new company called Gregarious Limited, which is linked to the group of firms mentioned earlier.)

But Antic has always been as much about property as (some very good) pubs – and this was a process that the public were alerted to.

To find planning applications, you have to search through the weekly lists. (This is something From The Murky Depths excels at for big developments.) It’s not actually that big a deal, but you do need to track down the lists. You’ll usually find them on a council website or in a local paper (in Lewisham, I think it’s the South London Press; in Greenwich, it’s currently the Mercury following Greenwich Time’s demise).

There was also a notice tucked away in the Ravensbourne window early in 2015. I actually saw it, took a picture, and made a note to myself to investigate – something I’m kicking myself hard for not doing.

So this process seems to have sailed through without local press – which used to check this stuff as a matter of course – local bloggers, local societies or the likes of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) noticing. But one other check seems to have failed.

Why was it decided behind closed doors?

Opening time: The Ravensbourne Arms when it started trading in May 2011

Opening time: The Ravensbourne Arms when it started trading in May 2011

Most planning applications are determined by officers. Local councillors don’t always need to sit around deciding whether you can have a kitchen extension. But if a certain number of your neighbours object, or if a local councillor thinks it should go before committee, then it will do just that.

Both 2014 and 2015 applications – despite them relating to a prominent local business – were not. They were decided by officers behind closed doors.

I’m not as familiar with Lewisham planning processes as Greenwich, but at first sight, it seems that the three councillors that represent Lewisham Central ward missed a trick here, as putting the applications before a committee would have enabled more alarm bells to ring.

This is a shame, because Lewisham has actually done some great work in putting protection of pubs into its planning framework (Greenwich’s Core Strategy also mentions the importance of pubs, although the protections aren’t as strong.)

What happens next?

Market Tavern, Lewisham

The Market Tavern pictured in February 2015: Antic are planning to reopen this site as E&H Handley

I don’t know. We do know that Antic is redeveloping the long-shut Market Tavern further up Lewisham High Street (under the name “E&H Hadley”), so that may be the company’s long-term priority. I understand that it’s hoped the staff will move up the high street to the new pub when it opens next year. It may well be that the sale of one outlet is funding the other.

But the new venue will be further away from the Hither Green and Ladywell areas, as well as the Lewisham Hospital staff that have come to treat the Ravensbourne as their local.

I’d hope that people rally to save the Ravensbourne Arms, although this could be a long, drawn-out battle – among Lewisham’s trump cards is a local planning rule stating that a pub must be proved to be unviable by having been on the market for at least three years with no takers. (Thanks to Rushey Green councillor James-J Walsh for tweeting this.)

This will be an interesting test for Lewisham’s pub protection policies, and I’m sure events will now be watched closely.

An Antic statement says: “It is with sadness that we announce our leaving the Ravensbourne Arms this Sunday in advance of opening at our new home, EH Hadley, in central Lewisham in 2017.

“We thank all of our customers for their support and very much look forward to being of service again soon.”

Down the road in Catford, Antic has secured a lease extension (from Lewisham Council) on another successful pub, the Catford Constitutional Club, and is holding a party on the 12th. News that it is closing the Ravensbourne may just dampen the celebrations for many locals.

There’s a moral to this story – if you see a planning notice on the front of your local pub, for heaven’s sake, read it and look it up. You might just be the one that helps keep it open.

6 comments

  1. David Ford

    Further to this and much thanks for keeping people in the picture; keep an eye on The Dutch House, Sidcup Road again. Seeing it boarded up I contacted Stonegate Pubs who said they had relinquished the lease. The Freeholder is unknown and is keeping an anonymous profile. It will apparently not now be a McDonalds but that is little consolation.

  2. spencerdrury

    With regard to the Dutch House I got a letter about its status as a community asset which local residents and I got for it a few years ago, so I suspect this is the only reason it hasn’t been sold off yet. Anyone know of a community group keen to get involved?

  3. Pingback: The Watch House, Lewisham – World of Spoons
  4. Steve

    Your line that “one of the checks and balances of civic society has effectively disappeared” seems to be one of the clear overarching themes of this blog, and the big story in SE London more generally.

    It seems unlikely that any of us will win the lottery and start a proper local news service that pays a good wage any time soon. However, what can we all do? The news co-op discussed here before sounds good, but are there any other low-level options? The planning finder link should be helpful. But would any of you hyperlocal folk consider putting together some sort of “How To” guide? Or could there be somewhere central for sharing potential leads, so that readers could do some of the legwork?

  5. The Hebridean

    Are people aware of planning app 15/2272/F for the AntiGallican on Woolwich Road Charlton? It has been with Greenwich’s Planning Dept for over a year now. The project is for a reduction in facilities plus part conversion to apartments but is it aimed at pub closure?