Councillors reluctantly back house behind White Swan as owners concede pub rent may be too high

White Swan beer garden
The proposed house would sit behind the pub’s beer garden

Property developer Mendoza has won its battle to build a house at the back of the White Swan pub after Greenwich councillors approved its plans “with a heavy heart” last night.

Councillors on the Woolwich and Thamesmead planning committee tied by two votes to two on the plans, with one councillor abstaining, with chair and Peninsula ward councillor Stephen Brain giving the casting vote.

It is Mendoza’s fourth attempt to build property here. The house will face Torrance Close, the service road at the rear of The Village. The pub will lose 30 per cent of its beer garden, together with trees, with an access road being driven through from The Village so council lorries can collect bins.

The pub closed in March, just before the spring coronavirus lockdown, after years of high rents being charged by Mendoza, which bought he pub in 2015. Mendoza’s representatives admitted they may need to reduce the rent on the pub to make it viable – a strategy criticised by one councillor who questioned why the rent was not cheaper in the first place.

A decision had been due in September, but the discussion was deferred so councillors could visit the site.

Planning officers had recommended they back the scheme. Their report to councillors said that “the area of pub garden retained would continue to provide usable outdoor space for patrons and would be proportional in size to the pub gardens of surrounding pubs”. They added: “The existing area of pub garden space is not integral to the overall viability of the White Swan because the significant and high quality internal facilities and the nature of the food and drink offering are also key selling points of the pub.”

“The development of part of the pub garden of The White Swan would maintain the viability of the pub and would provide a high quality residential development which would preserve the amenity of neighbour properties as well as the character and appearance of the Charlton Village Conservation Area,” the officers concluded. They recommended an acoustic wall be built to protect the new home from noise and a replacement tree be put in place in the garden.

Mendoza render of new White Swan home
How Mendoza says the new home would look from Torrance Close, behind the pub: it would largely be hidden from view by a wall

Despite the furore over the loss of part of the beer garden, only nine objections were received from members of the public and the Charlton Society. Fears for the future of the pub were expressed by speakers. Local resident Ruth Dodson called it “an incredibly family-friendly pub”, adding that the garden meant it was “a really safe place for children to play outside”. Another resident, Charlie Rome, spoke about the Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival’s screenings in the garden: “This is the kind of amenity the committee should be protecting.”

There was also unhappiness about the loss of the willow tree in the garden, but council tree officer Debi Rogers said that an inspection nine years ago had found it was decaying.

Addressing the committee, Charlton ward councillor Gary Parker said “anything that impinges on the beer garden” would jeopardise the pub’s future. “We’re in the era of social distancing now and anything that reduces the capacity for that will have an impact on the viability of a venue which is a music pub,” he said. Parker also said that the new London Plan – City Hall’s planning rules – cautioned against developments that took space from pubs.

Last orders: The White Swan has been closed since March

Fellow Charlton councillor Linda Perks, who stepped aside from the committee to speak against the application, said: “The White Swan is a very important local amenity – Charlton Village has two pubs, each with very different clientele. The White Swan is very much a family pub, with people interested in discussion, quizzes, people taking children are more likely to go to the Swan and the garden is a very important attraction.

“The pub will lose a third of its garden, this will impact very seriously on future operation of the pub. I did raise the question of future viability – the response given was that the upstairs rooms were available for the public house.” Perks also said there had been rumours that the pub’s upstairs rooms – which had been used for functions – were being converted for residential use.

“The previous pub landlord left because [Mendoza] raised the rent. The rent was quite high and it was hard for the pub to make a profit – it’s important that we seek assurances that it is their intention to retain the pub. The boundary of the property is right up against the pub garden and I can’t see that noise will be absorbed sufficiently and there’s a significant risk that the occupants will be complaining about noise.”

Milan Babic, the architect who designed the new house, said the new house would have no open windows at the rear. “Any noise has to go over the window and come down,” he said, adding that the gain of a new house and the loss of an “eyesore piece of land” would outweigh the loss of part of the beer garden.

Babic added: ”The pub will remain a pub. Unfortunately, it’s not viable – I’ve not heard any issue relating to rent; not enough people were using the property.”

While Babic told the committee that “hasn’t been viable to use the upper floors” of the pub, they had been in regular before the pub’s closure. Indeed, The Charlton Champion’s owner Flyover Media held its launch event there last June.

White Swan
Mendoza claimed these upstairs rooms were not viable

Peter Munnelly, a planning consultant for Isle of Man-based Mendoza, said: “No-one needs another period of uncertainty for the pub. If members chose not to go through with the officers’ recommendation, there will undoubtedly be another year, two years, where the pub will remain vacant. No tenant will want to take on a pub where they didn’t know what was going to be happening.

“The pub would still be used by families, would still attract a wide cross-section of society, it would still be a relatively large space. Yes, approximately 30 per cent would be lost, but all things being equal but that would not represent any kind of body blow to the appeal of the pub.”

Quizzed by the Conservative councillor for Eltham South, Nigel Fletcher, on whether Mendoza really wanted to keep the White Swan as a pub, Babic said: “My client is actively trying to find a tenant, it is a struggle but as far as we are aware they want to retain it as a pub. The previous tenant couldn’t make it work.

“It is highly likely now that the owner will have to review his rent strategy and reduce it, it could well be that it becomes viable. The freeholder has a pub, he knows it can only remain as a pub, and he has to work with that.”

Munnelly added: “The previous occupant has failed to – I need to couch my language a bit more carefully – has not made the operation commercially successful The pub is viable, but as Milan suggested, what it might entail is our client may need to take stock of the existing climate and make a reappraisal of what he can achieve in terms of rent for any new tenant.”

White Swan
Mendoza bought the freehold to the White Swan in March 2015

Dillon asked: “Are you aware of the rent demands made on the previous occupier? That could have been a contributory factor, I’m disappointed to hear the owner could consider a rent strategy because he could have done that with the previous occupier.” Asking where Mendoza was advertising the pub, he said it appeared that “the owner’s influence is a big contributory factor” to the pub being unviable. There was no response to these points.

Fletcher said he would be supporting the application “with a great deal of reluctance”, saying that he did not think that refusing on the grounds that the pub would be affected would be defensible if Mendoza took the issue to a planning inspector.

“We can’t micromanage the rent policy of the owners of the site – they will have heard loud and clear what we think of that, but it’s not a planning consideration,” he said.

But Dillon said he believed noise would be an issue: “I don’t believe a fence at the end of the development is going to be sufficient to address a noise problem with the occupants – if you know that area, sound doesn’t necessarily travel in the same line. Without the trees to muffle that sound, it will not only go into the surrounding area but it will go into Charlton Park.”

Chair Stephen Brain said it was a “very sensitive issue”. “I’d be concerned about noise if we said it was a live music venue, but [the venue] is inside it and not in the back garden, and I don’t think sound will bounce off the back wall of Charlton but be absorbed by it,” he said.

“I think [rejecting the scheme] would be very, very hard to defend at appeal,” he said.

Dillon and Abbey Wood councillor Clive Mardner voted against the scheme, Woolwich Dockyard councilor Dominic Mbang abstained, and Brain and Fletcher voted for it.

With the votes tied, Brain said: “My casting vote with a heavy heart is to approve the officers’ recommendation.”

He later said it was “not an easy decision”.

Mendoza’s first attempt at development, to build two homes, in October 2015, was thrown out by Greenwich Council planners. That decision was upheld by a planning inspector. A second attempt was rejected earlier in 2017. The third attempt, for one three-bedroom house, was rejected by council planners in December 2017 and again by a planning inspector in January. This scheme was submitted a year ago; the closed pub was made an asset of community value in July.

The White Swan is the second pub in south-east London to have developers succeed in attempting to redevelop parts of their premises this week. On Monday, developers gained consent to turn the upper floors of the White Hart on New Cross Road into flats after appealing to a planning inspector; Lewisham Council had previously refused the scheme.

You can watch the White Swan discussion for yourself in the YouTube video above – the key parts begin at one hour in.


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