Published: 10:48, 17 August 2018
| Updated: 12:31, 17 August 2018
A derelict pub earmarked for a new Co-op store was gutted by fire in a suspected arson attack in the early hours of this morning.
Crews were called to the former Plough Inn in Margate Road, Broomfield, shortly before 1am after black smoke was seen billowing from a top window.
The blaze was quickly brought under control and extinguished, but the entire ground floor of the locally listed building was destroyed.
It is thought someone broke in and started the fire deliberately, with neighbours reporting seeing "idiots" climbing out of a first-floor window.
The pub has been empty for three years and is now owned by father and son Ralph and Alistair Noel.
They are preparing a new application to turn it into a Co-op with flats and houses.
Their initial bid was rejected on design grounds and because they had not demonstrated there was not a need for a pub on the site.
KentOnline broke news of the fire to developer Ralph Noel this morning.
"I'm totally shocked and dismayed about it," he said. "I'm just glad no one was inside.
"We were in the process of putting metal shutters back on the top window because they had been broken recently."
Commenting on the likelihood of being blamed for the fire themselves, Ralph added: "It's a shame because we've got a very good reputation and I know what people will think.
"It's unchartered territory for us and not something that I've ever come across before."
Alistair added: "These things happen. Ultimately, if there's a derelict building it's going to be a target for these sorts of things.
"You get vandals come in and break windows, it's only a step further to start burning properties down. I imagine it's a load of kids who have gone in there, bored, and just thought 'oh right, we'll start a fire', and one thing leads to another.
"To suggest we'd be involved is ridiculous because the building is condemned anyway and we think we'll get planning permission to demolish it.
"We'll secure the site, make it safe and hope there are no more issues with it so we can push on with our planning application."
Alistair says the new designs will be more sympathetic to the village.
"We're just making it a bit more in-keeping with the local area," he said.
"There's an appetite for a Co-op store and we hope to push on and get that."
Police have confirmed witnesses have already come forward, but are asking anyone else with information about the fire to call them on 01843 222289, quoting the reference number 17-0054.
Alternatively, you can contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.