A 16th-century pub under threat of being developed for housing has been reprieved.
Plans were submitted to West Berkshire Council, following the closure of the White Hart Inn at Hamstead Marshall in September, to convert the historic building into four homes.
The owners argued that the pub was no longer viable as a business but local residents rallied and formed a campaign group – Save the White Hart Inn – to keep it open.
Ahead of a Western Area planning committee meeting to decide its fate, officers recommended the application be turned down, citing planning guidance that the pub was not redundant and was viable.
At the meeting in Newbury last Wednesday, officers accepted the argument put forward by villagers that the pub could still have a viable future and predicted that after three years the pub could be in annual profits of around £44,000 with an annual turnover of £400,000.
Outlining the officers’ stance, council officer Michael Butler said: “We consider this asset to the community should be retained if at all possible.”
Also siding with officers, Hamstead Marshall parish representative John Handy put the blame on the pub’s recent losses on the current owner.
He said: “This application is partly because the owner has failed to run the inn.
“If approved, it would deprive the village of its meeting place and without that pub this would be little more than a road.
“Who knows what will happen in the future, but it’s certain that villages like Hamstead Marshall need a focal point like a pub in which to revolve around.
“It would leave the community with a social void at its centre.”
Speaking on behalf of Kintbury ward, Anthony Stansfeld agreed: “It looks to be viable and this is what that application is all about.
“It survived television and the breathalyser and many pubs didn’t.”
Thomas Lane, representing the Save the White Hart Inn campaign group, pointed to a viability study conducted with CAMRA, which indicated the pub would make an annual turnover of between £530,000 and £573,000.
Councillor James Cole (Con, Kintbury) took the opposite view, however, and argued that the pub was in fact not viable.
He said: “I would be delighted for the pub to continue, but my experience of the operation is that sadly I don’t think it will.”
Also speaking for the application, the pub’s owner Stella Coulthurst said that when she first purchased the pub in March 2011 it was in a state of disrepair and the refurbishment had cost her around £1.2m.
She added that in total, the pub had resulted in a loss of around £1.5m since she took it on.
Ms Coulthurst called the viability report prepared by officers “flawed” and added: “We certainly had locals and we had regulars, it’s not my contention that nobody came.
“It’s simply that we didn’t have enough of them and often enough to sustain a viable business.”
On debating the application, councillor Hilary Cole (Con, Chieveley) voted a motion to refuse the application and said: “I want this to be a viable business for the community.
“If it does become a viable community operation that would be great, but if somebody came forward and bought it and ran it and it was viable that would also be great.”
Councillors voted by a majority to refuse the application altogether, but villagers were warned that if no progress is made in finding a new buyer or running the pub as a community in six months then a second application would be more difficult to turn down.
After the meeting, Ms Coulthurst said she was disappointed
She said: “The planning committee was very clear that, because there have been no commercial operators willing to take on the inn, the village ‘save’ campaign must come forward with a firm and financed proposal to take on the operation within the next six months.
“As at today, I have received no proposal from the village.
“I will, of course, be pursuing all available avenues to achieve the change of use.”