Saturday, 27 February 2021
CAMPAIGNERS have succeeded in having a former village pub relisted as an asset of community value despite opposition from the owner.
They want to re-open the White Lion at Crays Pond as a community “hub” with shops selling local produce, a coffee shop or bar and other amenities.
The pub was first registered as a community asset after it closed in 2013 and was bought by businessman Satwinder Sandhu.
He failed to re-open it and lived at the property unlawfully with his family until being forced to leave in 2019.
The protection order expired in 2018 but was renewed by South Oxfordshire District Council last year following an application by residents who have campaigned for the pub to be re-opened.
Mr Sandhu lodged an appeal but this has now been rejected by a first-tier tribunal of the General Regulatory Chamber.
The ruling means he can’t put the property on the market without giving residents six months to bid for it, although he isn’t obliged to accept any offer.
If he seeks planning permission to convert the former Greene King pub into a house, which he has tried and failed to do previously, its asset status would be taken into consideration.
In his appeal, Mr Sandhu argued that the pub hadn’t been operational in the recent past and there was little chance of it re-opening in the next five years, which is a legal requirement for a community asset.
He said the community hadn’t offered to buy it so there was no reason to think it would suddenly do so now.
Mr Sandhu also argued there was no evidence that a pub would be viable as a series of previous managers had struggled before quitting and there was too much competition from neighbouring villages.
He said it would be particularly expensive to reinstall the kitchen and other amenities which he had ripped out when he made it his home.
Mr Sandhu said that if the tribunal rejected his appeal, he would either seek planning permission for a change of use or just leave the building empty until the listing expired.
Michael Lee, for the council, said the White Lion had been a social meeting point for elderly residents, patients at the nearby Flint House police rehabilitation centre and parents and teachers at Woodcote Primary School and Langtree School.
It was also used to host large summer and Christmas events and was a meeting point for groups such as the Woodcote Rally and various Morris dancing sides. In his ruling, Judge Mark O’Connor said the campaigners now had a potential investor on board so the prospects of re-opening the pub had increased.
There was nothing to stop Mr Sandhu selling or leasing the premises below the market rate, he added.
He said that despite the pub’s troubles in the years before its closure, it had been successful for more than a century and thrived in the early years of the century.
Although two reports had concluded a pub alone was unprofitable, this didn’t prove the campaigners’ community hub or any other scheme was doomed to fail.
Judge O’Connor said: “Although Mr Sandhu points out that the property has been idle for the past seven years, he was of course unlawfully using it as his family residence during most of that time.
“Consequently, the premises were being put to a use that was of significant advantage to Mr Sandhu. The property can no longer be put to such use unless planning permission is granted.
“Substantial funding for a bid has now been promised and there is also the possibility of a grant to assist in this regard... the purchase by the community group remains a realistic possibility.
“I accept that its future is fraught with uncertainty, which is only fuelled by the current uncertain trading conditions for such establishments.
“The fact that the reports conclude the White Lion isn’t viable as a public house does not rule out that within the next five years the premises will be used in a way which furthers the community’s social wellbeing or interests.”
The campaigners say that if the property continues to be left empty, they could seek a compulsory purchase order by which the council would force Mr Sandhu to sell at a fair price to stop it falling into disrepair.
Since he moved out, the site has become overgrown and travellers have camped in the car park illegally several times. Fiona O’Brien, leader of the campaign group, said: “The judgement is great news and next year we’re hoping to get all the funding in place before asking if he will sell it, although we’re expecting a refusal as we’re probably the last people he’d sell to.
“We’ll have a meeting to discuss things in more detail and hopefully our supporters will put their money where their mouth is when the time comes.
“We haven’t been doing this for six years only to give up at the final hurdle and hopefully we’ll be able to demonstrate to the district council that we’re serious about running it for the benefit of the community.”
Peter Dragonetti, a member of Goring Heath Parish Council and the district council, said: “We’re very, very pleased with the outcome and it shows the community was right to seek relisting as a community asset.
“We look forward to opening negotiations with Mr Sandhu to return the pub to its proper use and we thank the district council for recognising the White Lion’s importance to our social fabric.”
The new listing will not expire until 2025.
Mr Sandhu, who now lives nearby, was prosecuted twice for disregarding an enforcement notice and ordered to pay a total of more than £6,000 in fines and legal costs.
He moved out of the building after the council took the case to the High Court.
In a last-ditch bid to remain, he “re-opened” the pub as a whisky bar with limited capacity and opening hours but the judge ignored this and ordered Mr Sandhu to pay another £20,000 in costs.
He says he originally bought the pub with the intention of opening an Indian restaurant but learned this wouldn’t work.
Mr Sandhu didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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