Restoration of a period property can add real value to a hospitality business, but planners can impose frustrating delays. Selwyn Parker explains how to maintain architectural features without losing your marbles
When Dundee publican and hotel owner Jimmy Marr sought permission to restore the listed but run-down Taybridge Bar in 2008 he hoped to get the job done in about two months. He had the money, the plans, the builders and, he was sure, a local clientele keen to see the pub restored to its former glory. The pub even has a popular song written about it - Frida Kahlo's Visit to the Taybridge Bar by Michael Marr.
However, it took three years to get council approval and the newly renovated pub did not open until just before Christmas 2011. Marr was confused and disappointed by the delays.
"Historic Scotland got involved at the beginning, and then the council took it over," he explains. "Every time we presented a drawing it was rejected for different reasons. It took six to eight drawings to get approval. And we're still arguing about the position of a partition, which the council wanted put in the middle of the bar but which I said wasn't viable."
That the restoration of the Taybridge has enhanced Dundee's pub estate is not in doubt. Takings have jumped four times since the restoration was completed. But the process became unnecessarily tortuous, Marr believes.
"When I bought it the toilets were disgusting, there was no disabled access because the floors were on different levels, it had three separate rooms, which wasn't viable, and it was extremely run-down," he recalls.
However, Marr says he received so little support from the authorities that he nearly abandoned the project and closed the pub, which was at least a century old. When permission finally came through, ceilings and cornices were restored along with other architectural features. "We even discovered an original fireplace that had been covered up," Marr adds. And although the separate rooms are no more, the pub is subtly divided into three distinct areas with original partitions.
Difficulties with conservation authorities are a familiar story. Although conservation officers and national heritage bodies have a duty to ensure that the architectural integrity of the historic pub estate is not destroyed by ham-fisted renovations, some publicans complain of frustrating delays in capital-intensive projects that are important in local economies.
For instance, Kingdom Hotels, owner of 37 tenanted pubs, ran into a six-month hold-up last year with the £1.5m refurbishment of the Links, a 26-bedroom hotel and pub in Edinburgh's conservation area of Bruntsfield. According to managing director Dean Melville, the main battles were fought over the installation of the lift and the replacement of windows.
The challenges of restoring - or, indeed, doing anything - to listed pubs and hotels is growing with the increase in the size of the heritage estate, in part because of Camra's worthy campaign to have more qualifying establishments put on the register. However, that has inevitably put more power in the hands of conservation officers.
Often it's the older buildings that take the most time. As JD Wetherspoon got deeper into its 2008 restoration of the 15th- to 18th-century Royal Hop Pole in Tewkesbury, it turned into a kind of heritage treasure hunt.
"Not only did we realise we had free-standing artefacts in the pub, including an altar that dated back hundreds of years, but as we unveiled each layer of the building it kept coming up with another surprise," remembers Jon Randall, head of property and acquisitions. "We discovered a medieval structure, which JDW refurbished and is now part of the corridor to the hotel rooms."
And it helps if the publican isn't in a hurry. When Graham Cook, owner of the Victorian, Grade II-listed New Inn in the village of Hadlow Down in East Sussex, sought permission to refurbish and extend the two-storey premises, it quickly turned into a saga. As well as seeking the customary planning permission and resource consents for the building, car park and other aspects of the project, Cook had to commission an arboreal and rural survey because the New Inn is located in an area of outstanding beauty.
"The local authorities are pretty hot here on what you can and can't do," explains Cook. "But the conservation officers were helpful. They wanted the pub to be restored and they were aware it had to change to be a viable proposition."
Not too pernickety, the council has signed off on a zinc roof instead of the original clay tiles, and chestnut weatherboarding on the extension instead of bricks. However, the elaborate original brickwork of the main building will be preserved, among other features.
Cook is philosophical. "Most of their requirements I was going to do anyway," he says. "There was no dissent along the line." After three years and expenditure of £10,000, Cook has got his approval through with 26 conditions attached and is about to start on the £500,000 project.
And here's a good tip: Cook pinned up the plans inside the New Inn so locals could see for themselves what was about to happen. "I wanted to get everybody on board," he says. This open approach has paid dividends - several wealthy locals have offered to invest in the resurrection of the village's sole pub.
Some councils are more zealous than others. Jennifer Aldersley, who bought the Grade II-listed Ashill Inn in Devon in October, was quickly made aware that she could make barely any changes without the council's permission. The single-pane windows must be replaced only by special, sympathetic double-glazing with thin glass, the fence by a picket or traditional stone wall, the car park resurfaced by stone paving, the clay roof tiles by, well, clay tiles.
Similarly, the deteriorating outside signage can only be substituted with one of the same size and shape, ditto for the supporting ironwork. Traditional features that embody the pub's character, such as beams, doorways and fireplaces, are off limits except for maintenance. "There's no leeway there whatsoever," says the publican.
Although it all adds to the total refurbishment bill and Aldersley has no idea at this stage what it will cost, she views these restrictions as being in her own best interests as the owner of an historic asset. Also, having done her homework, she wasn't surprised by the rules. "The most important thing is to research everything," she explains. "This is a traditional British village pub and the locals can't wait to see it put back the way it's supposed to be."
When the job's done the return isn't long in coming, say owners. The restoration of Kingdom Hotels' the Links in Edinburgh produced a doubling of turnover within a few months. And if the conservation watchdogs had been more sympathetic, the return would have come six months earlier.
JD Wetherspoon has had its debates with conservation officers, but is convinced the results justify the effort. "Restoration of listed buildings is labour-intensive and time-consuming but you end up with a beautiful building, and we find that people want to go to that kind of pub," says a spokesman for a chain, with 70-80 listed premises among its 835-pub estate. In fact, Wetherspoon's Opera House in Tunbridge Wells, a 1997 restoration, occasionally stages operas, which certainly helps put the premises on the map.
The spokesman concludes: "From Wetherspoon's viewpoint, the extra work and cost in restoration is absolutely worth it."
Speak to the specialists
The bigger the project, the more carefully developers should tread. That's the advice of Barry Donoghue, director of Denizen Contracts, which specialises in refurbishments and renovations in the hospitality industry - and there's no shortage of work: the firm has £50m worth of contracts on the books for 2012.
"Listed projects are definitely more challenging and will take longer," he warns. "And developers won't get 100% of what they want. Both parties must be ready to compromise."
To smooth the path, Denizen follows a standard policy of appointing a conservation specialist from the outset who talks the same language as the local authorities. "It's a fundamental benefit to the project," says Donoghue. Even so, it took Denizen four years - and five sets of planning approvals - to complete the conversion of the 600-year-old Hoole House, with its Grade II-listed conservatory, into the Doubletree Hilton at Cheshire. On top of the usual permissions, Denizen had to commission an archaeological survey of the Roman heritage site right next door.
With numerous heritage projects under his belt, Donoghue's experience, however, is that nearly all councils want restorations to happen, and few are so pernickety that they will stand in the way of giving a building a new life. "It's rare to find councils who will let a building fall down," he says.
Conservation authorities are particularly zealous over pub interiors, because there has been so much wanton destruction of them in the past. Big on their list are surviving planforms such as multiple rooms, old fittings around the bar counter and back, fixed seating, tiling and glazing - they are happy, however, for fake old fittings to be buried.
A particular anathema is the removal of separate rooms and partitions that, says Camra, creates "barn-like spaces" and encourages "vertical drinking".
Nor do planners like entrances being widened, because the original door often disappears at the same time. They're also getting tougher on the exterior, notably unsympathetic signage that disfigures the look. And extensions are being targeted, too, unless they are absolutely necessary - for example, when it's impossible to shoehorn modern hygienic toilets into the original structure. Even then, they must "complement and not overwhelm" the parent building.
Lately, pubs have started to make the heritage lists, not because of their historic architecture but because they are significant simply as pubs. But whatever the reason for a premises being listed, the obligations of ownership are mounting.