The Phene was built in 1850 by Victorian philanthropist Samuel Phene, who wanted a place for servants and local tenants to drink. In 2002, Bourne and his wife Sally Greene, owner of the Old Vic theatre, swooped in and bought it for just over £2 million through their pension trust. They then spent a further £1.1 million refurbishing the interior, turning it from a run-down drinker’s den frequented by George Best into a shiny new gastropub featured in Tatler — you can’t move for the cast of Made in Chelsea in the beer garden — creating the £27,000-a-week turnover an independent consultant estimates it generates.
But last year the Bournes applied to Kensington and Chelsea council to turn the pub into a luxury private home — which once completed would be worth £20 million, say local estate agents — and in September ownership was transferred into a Jersey-based offshore company called Blue Lagoon Holdings for an undisclosed sum.
More than 1,000 people signed a petition against his plans and the council turned down his application, but this week Bourne began a landmark appeal against that decision.
Campaigners, councillors and developers are watching the appeal closely as they believe the outcome will either draw a line in the sand for “pub-to-home” transformations — or open the floodgates, especially as a succession of further hearings in the borough are scheduled for the coming weeks.
It’s not Robert Bourne’s first foray into the courts. Last month, Kensington and Chelsea council dismissed his appeal against its original refusal to let him turn another Chelsea pub he owns — the 300-year-old Cross Keys in Lawrence Street — into a residence. More than 4,000 people signed a petition against its closure but their victory is not complete. The pub remains closed, with Bourne claiming it is economically unviable.
This time, Bourne has upped the ante. Instead of merely appealing against the council’s decision, he asked for a public inquiry, a move considered highly unusual and incredibly expensive. He has spent a fortune on retaining a barrister for four days — the hearing ends tonight — with a decision expected within six to eight weeks.
In an opening statement to the inquiry, Timothy Comyn, the barrister representing Bourne, dismissed the protesters’ claims that the pub still had strong ties to the community. He argued that the interior had changed beyond all recognition from the Victorian local it once was. Comyn said the Phene is now a “gastropub-cum-restaurant that serves no recognisable local community function” and that “the nature of the Phene Arms has changed irrevocably … [it is] an establishment frequented by the Hooray Henrys of today”.
I hope mr Bourne, given the NPPF, gets totally screwed for costs.