In our local town (Farnborough, Hampshire), a pub lies closed and ignored, almost derelict due to receiving no maintenance in the almost five years since it closed. Weeds grow from the window boxes which once had colourful displays and holes in the roof have been crudely patched, but the owners clearly have no interest in offering this building for new accommodation, the site is valuable land space in the centre of Farnborough, clearly visible from the main road.
Why did it close? Well, the details are sketchy, but a health inspection forced a temporary closure, and the current tenants promised a refurbishment programme, but this never happened. One would think that if the pub was making good money, then the investment would be a no-brainer, but it seems that the opportunity was taken to close down and cease trading.
It was not just a pub, but a much-loved music venue, staging live bands and a place for up and coming new talent to perform, something that Farnborough is missing now.
So what for the future? Well, McDonald’s are showing interest in the site, first of all previewing one of their ‘pre-fabricated’ boxes and a drive-thru restaurant (I use the term ‘restaurant’ loosely – I’m not a fan). Under pressure from local residents, a new scheme has been shown that retains the facade of the building, but still gives the hamburger chain what they want – an outlet for their so called food. Planning applications have still to be received. I suspect they may simply put the original plan in first as this is the most efficient, brand recognisable and cheapest solution for them.
What grounds could planning be rejected on? Very few, it seems. Simply rejecting on the grounds that Farnborough has enough fast food outlets is unlikely to work – or even legal and would likely fail on appeal anyway, involving the local council, Rushmoor, in legal costs. A listing for the building (it is quite old, and has historical connections) would work, but to be fair, the links are tenuous, a small part of the building is alleged to date to the 1700s, but this has been re-roofed and rendered many times, and is a very small part of the overall site, most of which was built in the 1800s. An application to English Heritage has failed already. Rushmoor really have very few grounds to reject planning on.
There is the ‘Pub Protection Policy’ – a forthcoming Government scheme, but not in place in Rushmoor. This could be rushed through, but it seems that this would cost money that someone would have to fund up front.
The best ploy would seem to be to convince MacDonald’s to withdraw their interest in the first place. Demonstrations have been held, even a march to another local restaurant, but these are unlikely to sway the corporate behemoth even a little. Money speaks louder than a few people with banners.
If they do withdraw – and we are getting lower down the list of possibilities here – what then? A thing called an “Asset Of Community Value” has been put in place by the local council. This gives local residents the opportunity to bid for the pub by delaying a new sale of the site for six months (that’s if the current deal falls through). Even a compulsory purchase could then be made by Rushmoor, which would save the residents trying to re-open the pub money (but would be supported by local tax payers).
If nothing happens, or residents can’t raise the money, then the building will remain there, sitting derelict and an eyesore and an embarrassment as many local people already feel it is. The whole process would then start again, with other suitors bidding for the building, the site value potentially devalued from the £1.6M that McDonald’s are already offering.
If a purchase by the community was successful, then the work of re-furbishing the site and building would commence. Estimates are in the region of £1M to bring the building up to modern standards and of a usable quality.
I have calculated some proposed figures of what the business would need to turn over, and figures in the region of £17K per week seem appropriate. Interestingly, since I calculated these figures it has come to light that a similar sized pub just up the road turned over £16K in 2009 (after the Tumble Down had closed), so these figures seem reasonable, but still ambitious. The potential debt burden of loans and investor funds (who would expect dividends) are major for the profitability of such a business and lead one to question if it was viable at all. There is competition from this pub down the road, a new Wetherspoons that has opened since the Tumble Down closed, and a new Beefeater is proposed next door too, so competition has increased dramatically. Given the budget and cash flow figures I have calculated simply opening as a business is not viable, it would take a very brave or foolish investor to get involved.
There are apparently grants available for communities to re-open such venues, maybe it could open as a community centre of some sort (without a pub), but again, then it would be largely funded by the local council and taxpayer – a council struggling to keep their community charges down in difficult times when Government funding is becoming more restricted.
Community groups have yet to explain how they could re-open this as a venue or where the funding would come from.
It’s difficult to see how this building can become viable commercially, or if local community funding can save it, given the cost to refurbish it is potentially more than creating a new building altogether.
It would be a shame to lose this piece of Farnborough history, true, but the reality is difficult and harsh. The options are limited and very dependent upon events. I do hope, whatever happens, that the building isn’t just left as it is for another five years.
EDIT 11th March – Since I posted this, I have received a number of agitated messages from members of the Community Interest Company “The Friends Of The Tumble Down Dick” (apologies if the name is wrong), they tell me that there are many inaccuracies in this blog entry, and that correct information is at their FAQs, including their proposals for bringing the site back into use, so for completeness, I link to it here.