So the Railway Arms on Downham Station is no more. For seven years this quirky micro pub has been a must visit venue for beer and cider aficionados from West Norfolk and way beyond. It has won a myriad awards from CAMRA for its cider, with one national title as CAMRA’s Cider Pub of the Year and had just been named in the top four in the country for this year when the closure was announced. It featured on one of Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys TV programmes and in a book about great Railway Station Bars, as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles. In short it was a gem, one of the great bars in Britain and now it has gone. The reasons for this have been well documented in this and other papers, but in essence boil down to a rent increase. I note that in the paper articles, the rent increase was described by the property company setting the level as ‘modest’. I had a long talk with Ian, the operator of the Railway, who was asked to pay the increase, and his perception was that it was excessive, and would make the business unviable. Negotiations took place over several months and a number of offers were made, all of them unfeasibly high and some with extra conditions attached, such as different opening hours.
So what of the future? The CAMRA branch has been aware of the threat for several months and has been successful in having the Railway listed as an Asset of Community Value. This provides some protection from a change of use. If the owner wants to sell it, or rent it on a long term lease, typically 25 years or more, then a community group must be given first option to buy it. If the company continues to own it, they can use it as they wish, but according to my legal advice ‘the fact that the site is listed may affect planning decisions if the owner is potentially looking at a change of use or to redevelop - it is open to the Local Planning Authority to decide whether listing as an asset of community value is a material consideration if an application for change of use is submitted, considering all the circumstances of the case.’ As I understand it, this means that if it is proposed to turn it into a coffee shop, the council has the right to decide if this is permitted under planning law. If you are concerned about its future, perhaps a word with your local councillor would be a wise move.
What is the likely outcome? The Railway as we know it has gone, and will not return. Ian has moved his possessions out and is not looking to change his mind. It is possible that it could be rented to another person to run as a bar, and it would be a great opportunity for someone to add their own style to a great building, but the rent would have to be realistic. The rumours are that it is to be lined up for a chain coffee shop. Could they afford the higher rent? Perhaps they would charge more for their products, or perhaps they would be one of these companies that do not pay UK tax, and therefore have lower operating costs so I would not rule it out
One thing is clear. There is a gap in the market for a local micro pub selling top quality cider and beer. Is there an entrepreneur out there brave enough to rise to the challenge?