Toby’s plight highlights wider problems around failing pubs

Posted On 02 Sep 2014 at 6:07 pm

Toby Inn - Woodingdean

A proposal to convert an old Brighton pub into a hostel prompted neighbours to complain but it highlights a wider problem

A Brighton pub that was closed by the police and the council is back at the centre of a controversy. This time the controversy is around plans for a hostel on the site rather than violence or anti-social behaviour.

The high feelings highlight the challenges facing owners when a pub is no longer profitable.

Sometimes locals falter because fashions change, with rivals winning over former regulars. Sometimes they may just be badly run, whether by the tenant or by heavily indebted corporate landlords.

But many blame unequal tax levels which make it cheaper to buy supermarket booze and drink at home.

The pub at the heart of the latest row is the old Toby Inn in Woodingdean. Neighbours are upset about plans to turn it into an 18-room hostel.

The current owner was refused planning permission last week after applying to change the way that the building is used. He also wanted to add a floor and extend the building as part of the conversion.

Some people living near the old pub, in Cowley Drive, sent objections to Brighton and Hove City Council. These included concerns about being overlooked by people on the extra floor which would have been added to the three-storey building, according to owner Tim Martin’s plans.

Another worry related to a lack of kitchen and laundry facilities. Some objectors wanted the pub turned into much-needed housing.

Neighbours complained that they hadn’t been consulted. And they expressed fears about what sort of hostel the Toby would become.

Given its location on an estate in the suburbs, most were worried that it would become a bail hostel rather than a stopping place for backpackers.

“A succession of tenants had come and gone – unwilling to stay or unable to make it work”

And bail hostels – no matter how much they are needed – attract concerns about the type of offenders who will be housed there. Inevitably their number seems likely to include thieves, burglars, drug dealers, sex offenders and those convicted of violence.

When Sussex Police asked the council to revoke the Toby’s premises licence in 2006, officers were spurred into action by a brawl which had spread into the street. It wasn’t the first outbreak of violence and the police request came after a number of 999 calls over the preceding year.

The owner, the pub company Admiral Taverns, tried to sell the pub as a going concern without success. It had become unprofitable, according to a report filed in support of the planning application. And a succession of tenants had come and gone – unwilling to stay or unable to make it work.

Even so, Councillor Dee Simson, who represents Woodingdean, objected to Mr Martin’s proposals and lamented the loss of a community pub.

Her remarks will chime with regulars of other threatened pubs. The demise of the Rose Hill Tavern and the London Unity over the past year or so have led to local campaigns.

Saving the local has also brought calls from the likes of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) to make it harder for pubs to be sold or converted to other uses.

The government’s response to the wider problems afflicting pubs has been to allow them to be designated assets of community value (ACVs). In Brighton this may yet prevent the Rose Hill from being turned into housing.

The approach hasn’t won the backing of everyone in the trade. Martyn Cornell, a Sussex University graduate, helps run Propel, which provides news, intelligence and comment on the food and drink sector. He believes that CAMRA’s approach is self-defeating as it will ultimately put off people and firms from buying pubs.

Owners should be allowed to sell, he believes, if they can’t make a living. They should, he has said, also be able to turn their buildings over to a profitable use.

The fate of the old Toby Inn will not settle this debate – or the debate about tax on drink. But the planning application turned down last week will almost certainly spur some local people to pay closer attention to what happens next.

  1. J Mark Dodds Reply

    The Bevvy, also in Brighton, offers an ideal alternative to the social train wreck that’s happening at the Toby. The pub has been run into the ground by poor management and needs substantial investment to make it relevant for contemporary purpose. A hostel is not enough for buildings like this one that are positioned in the heart of communities all over the UK.

  2. J Mark Dodds Reply

    The Bevvy, also in Brighton, offers an ideal alternative to the social train wreck that’s happening at the Toby. The pub has been run into the ground by poor management and needs substantial investment to make it relevant for contemporary purpose. A hostel is not enough for buildings like this one that are positioned in the heart of communities all over the UK.

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