Support the White Rabbit in battle against council over garden

Email the council now telling them that the garden is fine as it is

Few pubs in central Oxford have decent gardens, or patios as they are better called bearing in mind that greenery is at a premium. The battle to survive during the pandemic was made easier for pubs with outside space, and the City Council played its part in granting pavement licences to some pubs giving them outside space for the first time.

The White Rabbit – one of very few city centre pubs where you can be sure of finding locally brewed real ales – was lucky in that it opened its large garden, on the site of a private car park, in summer 2019, several months before the pandemic began. But now the council wants major changes to the garden, the cost of which poses an “existential threat” to the pub according to social media posts. It is appealing to supporters to email the council planning department in support before the deadline of this Wednesday, May 25 (details below).

The White Rabbit’s garden adds a touch of greenery to the city centre

The White Rabbit is an important real ale pub and a regular in the Good Beer Guide, with five ever rotating real ales from local suppliers such as Oxford Brewery (formerly Shotover), Little Ox, Vale Brewery, White Horse, XT or North Cotswold, with Siren Craft of Berkshire another regular. It aims to provide a complete range of ales from dark to golden, all from within a 30-mile radius. The pub, where manager is Ed Whinney, is famous for its home-baked pizzas and has a predominantly young and student clientele in the evenings, but a wider range of customers during the day.

“We’re not perfect but we really try our best,” says the pub’s post. “We start our staff, regardless of age, on the OXFORD Living Wage plus a share of the tips, and we kept every single one of them, full- or part-time, on furlough throughout the pandemic. We’ve just completed our first sustainability audit and aim to be the first Oxford pub to get to Net Zero in 2023. During the pandemic we donated 100s of pizzas to people who really needed them; we contributed to The Cellar to try to stop it closing; we paid to soundproof the Oxford Playhouse and we’ve contributed to the Ultimate Picture Palace to try to ensure it remains a Community Asset. We love our customers and our suppliers, especially the local ones we have close relations with.

“A few years ago, after a very long, hot summer, we realised we needed a proper garden to survive. The semi-derelict car park adjacent to the pub attracted drug-takers and was an eyesore. We consulted with the Planning Department of Oxford City Council about our ideas for the bespoke oak tables and heated benches, parasols and fencing, and the Planning Officer informally pre-approved, via email, everything before we purchased and installed it. We finally opened the garden in June 2019, and have been so grateful for it ever since. It’s what managed to get us through the pandemic – it saved our pub.

The Jolly Farmers’ garden is a haven of tranquility also used for live events

“Oxford City Council want to change this – they want us to replace the very expensive bespoke pub furniture with cheap, ‘more typical pub furniture’, to change the fence and replace the parasols with generic pub umbrellas and to remove the weather protections that allow us to operate in all weathers. Out of the 30 pubs in Oxford city centre there are only TWO (us and the Wheatsheaf) which are truly independent. ALL of the others are either managed or owned by pub chains or breweries, or closed. We are proud to be independent and do not want to be like every other pub — we want to be better! The parasols and fence absorb the noise from the pub, the sides and the benches keep our customers warm, and the plants bring a refreshing bit of greenery to this part of the city. We are asking you to please send an email in support of our application to the planning department before May 25 when consultation closes.”

It isn’t quite correct to say there are only two independent pubs in the city centre, as the Jolly Farmers – a long established, very successful LGBT+ pub, is certainly in that category, serving two real ales, one of which is usually local. The Plough at 38 is also independent although it sources real ales exclusively from XT, and The Lamb & Flag, when it finally re-opens, will join this select band.

Messages of support have already flooded in, including from Jolly Farmers boss Spike Greenwood who wrote: “As a fellow independent pub we are extremely concerned by any attempt by any public body to interfere with the style and character of a venue. Our pub was built in 1592, and we are proud to be a 21st century community space. We are a living city, not a heritage theme park.”

Oxford CAMRA’s Pete Flynn added: “I believe the council wants all pubs to look alike, and reflect what they consider to be the typical model with benches and parasols, in line with the majority of central Oxford pubs. It seems to me that pubs with any kind of idiosyncratic features are unwelcome. It’s all ‘jobsworth’.”

The row has turned the spotlight on the few pubs in the city centre with decent outside space, which include the Jolly Farmers (which welcomes all kinds of customers), the Red Lion (next door to the White Rabbit), the Turf Tavern, the Head of the River, the Chequers and the Plough. The Bear Inn, whose substantial outside space also predates the pandemic, was only able to open during the outside trading restriction as the interior of this ancient pub is so small.

To support the White Rabbit, email quoting reference number: 22/00672/VAR (site address: The White Rabbit pub, 21 Friars Entry, Oxford, OX1 2BY) before Wednesday, May 25. A brief email saying you support the pub’s existing garden furniture and fencing will suffice.

White Rabbit manager Ed Whinney celebrates inclusion in the Good Beer Guide for 2022