Updated: Aug 23
Every Heritage Consultant, and anyone with even a passing affection for Britain’s historic buildings, will have watched in horror as The Crooked House, one of the Midlands’ most famous old pubs, was destroyed by fire earlier this month, then subsequently demolished by an excavator. As the investigations continue into the circumstances surrounding the incident, we’ve taken a quick look at the heritage issues at play in this and similar circumstances*.
What was The Crooked House?
The Crooked House stood at the site near Dudley on the borders of the historic counties of Worcestershire and Staffordshire since 1765, when it was built as a farm house. It was converted into a pub in around 1830, by which time it had acquired its distinctive lean as a result of mining subsidence that left the western corner of the building lying four feet lower than its eastern side. Known by various names over the years, the pub became known as The Crooked House in 2002 as a sign that it was most famous as a tourist attraction, both for its unusual appearance and the optical illusions created by the lean, causing it to appear that objects placed on surfaces inside could roll ‘uphill’.
Was the Building Listed?
Despite frequent statements in the press and on social media to the contrary, The Crooked House was not a listed building, though an application to have the building listed was made by campaigners in the local area a week before the fire destroyed the pub. Listed buildings are afforded much greater protection under the law than buildings that lack listed status, specifically a different planning process judged under separate legislation. Despite this, given its age and level of local significance it is likely that the building would have been classed as a non-designated heritage asset, which offers some extra protection beyond that of a ‘normal’ house.
Was the Demolition Legal?
There are all sorts of planning related issues at play in this case, falling under other disciplines, many of which are covered ably here by the team at Planning Geek. However, we’ll look at what heritage law might say. From a national perspective we have already established that the building wasn’t listed, and it’s also not in a conservation area, meaning there’s nothing particularly protected about the building in legislation. It was, however, in our view considered to be a non-designated heritage asset by virtue of its age and character.
However, local policy always trumps national policy where it exists, and it happens that the former pub building was located a hair inside the border of South Staffordshire District rather than its neighbour Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council. Planning law gives local councils a fair amount of leeway in establishing their own rules and making their own decisions, and in this case the South Staffordshire Council Local Plan from 2012 contains Policy EQ3, which states that:
“The Council will consider the significance and setting of all proposed works to heritage assets, informed by relevant guidance that is supported by English Heritage. In addition the following principles will be adhered to:
• minimising the loss and disturbance of historic materials
• using appropriate materials, and
• ensuring alterations are reversible”
Note that this policy refers merely to heritage assets, not designated heritage assets, meaning that it also covers non-designated assets – one of which The Crooked House is likely to be. As such, it is likely that any demolition work would have to be carried out with the approval of the local authorities, who would have to confirm whether or not the building was considered to be non-designated before work could proceed. As for whether this conversation had taken place, here’s what Roger Lees, leader of South Staffordshire Council, said about it:
“The agreed course of action included the removal of three elements of the first-floor front elevation only,” Lees said. “This was only to avoid the weak parts of the structure from falling. At no point did the council agree the demolition of the whole structure nor was this deemed necessary.
“This council finds the manner in which the situation was managed following the fire completely unacceptable and contrary to instructions provided by our officers.”
So What Next?
Further investigation into the circumstances behind the demolition will have to be done to determine the facts at play and how they contribute to the legality (or not, as the case may be) of the building’s demolition. However, many have called for the pub to be “rebuilt brick by brick”, in the words of West Midlands Mayor Andy Street. If it is determined that the landowners were in the wrong, is that something that could happen?
It's not out of the question. A famous case in London saw Westminster Council side with local campaigners, who argued that developers CLTX had illegally demolished the Carlton Tavern days before it was due to be listed by Historic England, handing down the unprecedented ruling that it be reinstated exactly as it was. It re-opened to customers six years later in 2021, thanks to its original interior having been extensively photographed as part of the listing process.
Always Get Your Facts Right
Heritage is an extremely thorny issue largely because interpretation of the law differs depending on the exact circumstances of your property, which local authority it’s in, what’s around nearby and the challenges you’re facing. It can be complicated even to know what the law says, never mind prove it to the local conservation officer, so it’s almost always better to get professionals involved to help you out.
At Blue Willow Heritage we have more than a decade’s experience in working on complex heritage cases, including appeals, de-listings and legal proceedings, and we have the expertise to fight your corner regardless of the situation. If you’d like some free, no obligation advice, or you’d like us to help you out – make sure you get in touch as soon as you can.
*N.B. Blue Willow Heritage is not a legal practice and all opinions related to the events surrounding the destruction of The Crooked House are based on our interpretation of planning legislation. We have not been party to any private discussions between the landowner and local authorities.