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The Squirrel loses out to Covid in fight for survival

Historic pub where Francis Thompson, Brendan Behan and Joe Strummer were once regulars is set to be replaced by a pharmacy

30 November, 2020 — By Tom Foot

A HISTORIC pub will be converted into a pharmacy after councillors agreed the Covid-19 pandemic had made the business “unviable”.

The Squirrel – one of only two pubs left in Harrow Road ward – has survived three attempts to redevelop the site in Chippenham Road.

Westminster Council’s planning committee on Tuesday heard another application to shut the pub and move a nearby pharmacy into the premises when its lease expires.

An “independent” report commissioned by the council to settle the long-running dispute claimed that no pub operator could run a profitable business there because of the “impact of Covid”.

Richard Webster, who lives by the pub, told the committee: “Using Covid to assess viability, especially as we come out of the pandemic, sets a worrying precedent.

“The local community really wants its pub back. Post-Covid we’ll need it more than ever.”

The Squirrel closure has been fiercely opposed by residents in the Save the Squirrel campaign group, which staged street protests to save the pub after earlier plans to turn it into flats.The council’s summary of its independent report said “government-im­posed Covid restric­tions would last until October 2021” and this will increase costs including wages, prolonged period of table only service, cleaning and ventilation.

The Fleurets’ report estimated the pub would make just £1,000 profit in a year, adding: “The fact that the site has been marketed throughout the pandemic, but no offers were made further suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has made it unviable.”

Council officers said the application should be approved because “it is unlikely that after the pandemic that new oper­ators of the public house will be forth­coming,” adding: “For these reasons it is considered approp­riate in this instance to conclude that the public house is unviable.”

The former Faucet Inns-run pub has been shut for two years with owners insisting they can­not find an operator des­pite attempts to market it.

The owner of the Pitchkins and Currans pharmacy in Elgin Avenue told the committee: “My lease will expire soon and permission has been granted to convert the premises into flats. I cannot relocate anywhere. The premises must be accessible to the people using my pharmacy. The empty pub is the only available building. I intend to invest significantly. Jobs would also be lost. I would be extremely saddened to close down.”

Reverend Jackie Barry, Vicar of Emmanuel Church, speaking on behalf of Brenda Meadows who does not have internet access, told the online committee hearing: “I’m opposed to this application not because I’m opposed to the pharmacy but because it would be a tragedy to lose our local pub. There are hardly any pubs left in our area.”

The Maida Hill Neighbourhood Forum had recommended refusal, with a rep telling the meeting: “There are a number of commercial buildings nearby for the pharmacy. This isn’t a choice between one and the other.”

Labour’s Cllr Tim Roca said he was “proud of the community campaign”, adding: “I’m worried residents have been misled into thinking there is no interest in the Squirrel when it is.”

The pub has an interesting history with past regulars including the poet Francis Thompson and the Irish writer Brendan Behan. Most famously, it was the favourite watering hole of Clash legend Joe Strummer when he lived in a squat nearby.

It was originally called The Skiddaw after the first landlord, Samuel Richardson and his family who lived close to the impressive mountain of the Lake District.

Committee Cllr Geoff Barraclough said: “The evidence tonight has been fairly strong, there is a genuine community interest in keeping this thing going. Every pub in Britain is not viable right now, we are in a pan­demic. I don’t see how the committee can take this decision. It is short sighted.”

Conservative Cllr Mark Shearer said he believed the “market is a very good test” of whether some­thing is viable or not and asked for evidence of offers from pub operators, adding: “No one wants to close pubs, least of all me.”

Planning chief Robert Rigby said: “With a heavy heart, I would say in this particularly instance, very very regrettably, it is acceptable, but it is a very close thing, and I genuinely understand the community wanting to keep it. The loss of the public house is regrettable and acceptable.”

Conservatives Cllr Selina Short and Cllr Shearer voted in favour of the scheme “with regret” and “a very heavy heart”, respectively, while Labour Cllr Barraclough voted against.

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