George Tavern campaigners granted day in High Court

Support: Soul singer Leon Bridges dons the George Tavern campaign t-shirt. Photograph: Pauline Forster

An iconic Stepney music venue is gearing up for a fresh battle with developers after the owner won the right to appeal against plans to build luxury flats next door.

The Grade II-listed George Tavern on Commercial Road – which has hosted the likes of Nick Cave and Plan B – has been locked in a nine-year legal struggle against Swan Housing Group over the future of a former nightclub that is joined to the pub.

Landlady Pauline Forster fears that residents in the proposed six-flat development would complain about noise disturbance from the George and force the venue to close down.

Swan Housing had seemed close to getting the green light for the plans in 2014. But a last-ditch effort from Ms Forster to get the right to appeal has succeeded, having lost the previous appeal in May 2015.

Ms Forster told the East End Citizen that the residential development would be likely to lead to noise complaints from new neighbours living next door to the venue.

She said: “If you get complaints, [the council] can come and restrict your licence or make it impossible for you to trade.

“Take the music away and we would not be able to stay open financially.”

Precedent

Mr Forster hopes that if she wins the new case at the High Court, expected to begin later this year, it will set a precedent for similar applications where residential developments are planned near music venues.

“If we win this case it will affect how local authorities and planning departments approach residential applications when they are close to existing business like mine,” she said.

Ms Forster bought the George in 2002 at the same time as the neighbouring nightclub – previously Stepney’s – was bought by a landlord who sold it on to Swan Housing.

She successfully campaigned against Swan Housing’s first planning application in 2008 with the help of celebrities including Amy Winehouse, who suggested printing t-shirts reading “Save the George Tavern”.

Two years later the council rejected Swan Housing’s second application, proposing a more modest development. Swan Housing appealed the decision to the government’s Planning Inspectorate, who overruled the council’s decision in 2014.

Valerie Owen, Chair of the Directors’ Board at Swan Housing, was also a non-executive director at the Planning Inspectorate at the time.

Since the Planning Inspectorate’s decision, Ms Forster has revived the campaign to save the tavern, receiving support from high profile backers such as Sir Ian McKellan, musician Leon Bridges and Olympic diver Tom Daley.

Ms Forster said she is proud of the campaign but does not want to spend all her life fighting developers: “When you’re running a small business, open seven days a week, you haven’t got time.

“You’re not part of a big corporate – you’re doing everything yourself.”

‘Inappropriate’

A new petition was launched last month to gain support for the George and has received over 1,800 signatures. The tavern is also fundraising to help cover the legal costs of the battle.

Annabel Graham Paul, a barrister who has represented the George Tavern, said, “At the moment the law is failing licensed operators.

“Too many good music venues are facing closure because of inappropriate development.

“Local Authorities are confused about the relationship between planning and licensing decisions, and I’m pleased that the Court of Appeal has recognised it needs to examine this.”

A spokesperson from Swan Housing Group said: “We are not challenging the George’s licence and have no wish to see the loss of the George as a live music venue.

“The George is part of the local fabric and Swan does not want to disrupt that, and we don’t imagine future residents will either.

“The George is already operating surrounded by hundreds of homes and is being run in a way which complies with its licence – there is no reason why this should not continue.”

Visit the George Tavern’s fundraising page for more information