A bitter row over the future of one of Brixton’s landmark pubs is set to reach a conclusion at a meeting of Lambeth council’s licensing sub-committee on Tuesday (8 October).
On one hand is a group of residents who live near the Duke of Edinburgh on Ferndale Road, on the other are the pub’s owners, more local residents, and the Brixton Business Improvement District (BID) which represents local businesses, including many in the hospitality and night-time economy sectors.
At stake is the future of the pub. Its owners say that, if the demands of the first group of residents are successful, it will become uneconomic to run and be forced to close, seeing Brixton losing one of its ever-declining number of ungentrified pubs serving both older locals and newcomers.
Its Grade II listed building’s likely fate would then be to follow other former Brixton institutions like Mango Landin’ and become a block of “luxury” flats. Originally a pub, the Hope, on St Matthews Road, Mango Landin’ closed in 2013.
At issue is an application to clarify its longstanding licence by the Duke of Edinburgh’s owners, Solitaire Restaurants, which runs other pubs and venues in London’s trendier areas and bought the Duke of Edinburgh in 2013.
Solitaire says a small group of residents has used this as an opportunity to present a non-negotiable list of demands that would lead to the pub’s closure.
This group says that, told to do so by the council, it has amassed a large number of photographs and videos which, it says, show anti-social acts outside the pub going unchallenged by its security staff, and obstruction caused by queues and the pubs’ rubbish bins.
Accusations of intransigence and harassment appear in the 700-plus pages of papers that the council sub-committee must consider.
They include testimony from a former employee of the pub who says she quit because of the behaviour of one of the leaders of the residents who want to impose restrictions on its permitted activities.
A major bone of contention is the pub’s enormous garden, which backs on to several local dwellings.
Solitaire say that if its permitted capacity is restricted to what its main premises alone can accommodate, as the residents demand, then it will no longer be economically viable.
The enormous volume of documents before the committee contain many snippets that highlight the tensions created by Brixton’s dual identity as an increasingly middle class residential area and the home of a night-time economy that some see as rivalling that of the West End.
Some of the objectors say that an establishment like the Duke of Edinburgh should not operate in a residential area.
This argument is countered by others who make the oft-repeated point that people seeking a peaceful suburban existence should look somewhere other than Brixton and that the pub has stood where it does – on a main thoroughfare between the entertainment hotspots of Brixton and Clapham high street – since at least 1860.
The papers also reveal both sides accusing the other of failing to negotiate or compromise.
Stephen Mulgrave, the designated premises supervisor of the pub, is accused of refusing to engage with the residents’ group demanding major changes to the pub’s licence, but he, in turn, quotes emails from a leader of the group which urge that the group should not talk to Solitaire unless the company agrees to accept in full and without change a list of new licence conditions that he has drawn up.
One email says: “If the DoE accept my conditions I’m prepared to meet to discuss issues. However until such time my next discussion will be before the licensing sub-committee”.
Chiara Bisacco says that she left her job as general manager of the pub, as did her assistant manager, because of the same person’s “behaviour and attitude towards myself, the management team, door staff, bar staff and our customers has gone beyond anything I have seen, heard or experienced in my whole career running pubs”.
Bisacco says she was threatened with being reported to Camden council, the authority that issued her personal licence.
“I, alongside Stevie [Mulgrave], all my staff, management team, door staff and regulars have worked so hard to make the Duke a safe place for everyone where no abuse of any kind is tolerated. And it’s heartbreaking to see someone who’s never been part of it is trying to rip it apart,” she says.
But the pub has its local supporters. One wrote to her Lambeth councillor praising the efforts of pub staff to prevent nuisance, including stopping men from urinating in her front garden by hiring extra security staff, and emptying bins later in the morning when asked by her to do so.
When she expressed concern to the pub about her privacy when it was showing last year’s men’s football European cup on large screens in the garden, she says “they not only paid for and attached a trellis to the top of my fence, they also added a bamboo screen for extra privacy”.
She adds: “There are many more things that I could mention but, most of all, I would like to say that, over the nine years I’ve lived here, the management at the Duke have always been helpful and proactive at solving problems.”
Other local residents whose properties back on to the pub’s garden have backed its licence application.
One told the council: “The curfews and security the pub have in place are a considerable effort to keep the local community safe and peaceful, making the public nuisance and excessive noise accusations extremely inaccurate.
“I’ve lived on the street for five-plus years and found the pub to be nothing but accommodating and considerate towards the local residents.”
Another said: “My garden backs onto the garden of the pub and I’ve never had any cause for complaint over the last 12 years or so.
“When I come home late, I notice people employed by the pub making sure their customers leave as quietly as possible.
“The customers the pub attracts seem very pleasant on the occasions our paths cross. Unlike elsewhere in Brixton (!).
“I’ve never witnessed any of them using drugs, begging, urinating in public, threatening anyone, yelling or even swearing.
“It’s my feeling that the pub’s very well run.”
The licensing sub-committee meets at 7pm on Tuesday 8 October in committee room B6 of the town hall.
You can find the agenda and papers for the meeting on the council’s website.