Opinion: Pubs matter so why not protect them in planning law?

Today has seen the third House of Commons debate on pubs in less than three months: rather like the proverbial London Bus. But with the rate of pub closures in the UK still running at 29 a week, a marginal decline from 31 a year ago, communities’ cries for help have been coming along rather faster.  There is a growing issue with pubs being converted to supermarkets in particular.  With long-awaited reform of the industry grinding its way through the House of Lords (where the resistance of Tory peer and former pubco director Lord Hodgson, sometimes rather distasteful, is thankfully proving futile), the focus is now on planning.

The Coalition has for the first time recognised pubs as community assets in national planning law, albeit weakly, and has introduced the Assets of Community Value [ACV] process which is starting to let a few communities buy their pubs.  A fortnight ago, Lib Dem Minister Stephen Williams announced some additional protection for communities who get pubs listed as an ACV by removing permitted development rights.  But an amendment by Conservative Charlotte Leslie MP, backed by Lib Dem Pub Champion Greg Mulholland, narrowly failed to remove the much-exploited loophole that allows pubcos to sell or lease pubs to Tesco (formerly) and the Co-Op (principally at present) for supermarket conversion that sees often successful pubs close forever.  That amendment reflected Lib Dem policy.

In my CAMRA role I backed a cross-party campaign in Earley in John Redwood’s Wokingham constituency to try and prevent the successful Maiden Over pub from being shut in this way.  It was unsuccessful because the owners Enterprise Inns leased it to Tesco, thus avoiding the ACV process entirely.  Wokingham Council under threat from Tesco did a U-turnon the only thing that would have protected the pub – the little-used Article 4 Direction that has so far failed to protect a single pub in this predicament.

Today’s Evesham Journal highlights the actions of New River Retail Ltd – who did a secret deal with the Tories’ favourite brewer Marstons to buy over 200 of their pubs with the intention of shutting a number of them down in the face of local protest.  Stephen Williams mentioned this during the debate:

I was made aware this morning of a report in the Evesham Journal about NewRiver Retail writing to 11 of its owned pubs in the Dudley area, which it seems to want to convert into Co-ops, and suggesting that the pub managers, for an incentive—I put it no strongly than that—should not seek to obstruct what it is doing. Planning law cannot stop all those sorts of commercial practices, but if any of the pubs in Dudley or elsewhere are important to the local community, people should get out there right now and list them, in order to give protection.

So more is needed. These secret deals between pubcos and other developers are taking place to deliberately avoid regulation; campaigners report several new cases every week.  While nobody is arguing for every pub to remain in situ even if unviable, the current situation is an outrage which the new CAMRA ‘Pubs Matter’ campaign provides the tools to rail against.  Currently a scrapyard or laundrette has more protection in planning terms than a pub.  The Government has rightly changed the law to introduce control on betting shops.  So why not a pub?

Stephen Williams is due to introduce the additional protection in the remaining weeks of this Parliament.  Lib Dems must and will go further.

A final note.  I am standing against Kris Hopkins MP, currently Community Pubs Minister [not that this has been welcomed in the trade press].  In his own constituency the Royal Oak in Haworth, opposite the station on the beautiful preserved Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, came under threat.  The parish council told Tesco to go away and applied for ACV status.  None of this would have mattered, even with the additional protection – and Kris Hopkins spoke out in favour of the permitted development the supermarket was exploiting.  Only Tesco’s subsequent financial troubles saved the [still closed] pub.  This sort of complacent approach uses communities as a doormat for developers to walk over.  It is one issue I will raise again and again until the Liberal Democrat solution – proper pub protection – is delivered.

Editor’s Note:

After correspondence from representatives of New River Retail, we have changed the original wording of the paragraph relating to New River Retail Ltd because it could have been misunderstood. We have replaced it with the Minister’s comments on the issue from the Commons debate. We are happy that the amended text better reflects the position.

* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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  • Julian Tisi 12th Feb '15 - 2:38pm

    Well done Gareth, keep it up!

  • Presumably the reason these pubs are being closed is because they are no longer capable of being run as profitable businesses due to lack of demand (don’t we keep hearing how pub custom is falling year-on-year)?

    In which case, surely they ought to close and the land be used instead for something for which there is a demand?

    I suspect if that all the people who were up in arms about the local pub shutting actually regularly went there, it would never have been in danger. But as they didn’t, it should shut as it is clearly not serving a need.

  • Simon McGrath 12th Feb '15 - 3:23pm

    Before increasing the power of the state any further, Liberals need to ask themselves if we really need to do so. Less people are using pubs for a whole host of reasons including the smoking ban , restrictions on drinking and driving, cheap alcohol from supermarkets. Stopping failing pubs closing will simply make it more difficult for the remaining pubs.

  • matt (Bristol) 12th Feb '15 - 3:42pm

    Dav and Simon, have you actually read Gareth’s article? He shows that the profitability of the pubs as pubs is not necessarily the only reason chains choose to close them.

  • Dav and Simon, have you actually read Gareth’s article? He shows that the profitability of the pubs as pubs is not necessarily the only reason chains choose to close them

    Does he? I missed that bit. could you point it out?

    (The article refers to ‘the successful Maiden Over pub’, but if you follow the link you find ‘Its owners, Enterprise Inns, have decided the pub is not viable and offered a long lease of the site to Tesco’ — ‘not viable’, ie, it was unprofitable).

  • I am not at all surprised that Simon McGrath pushes the line of Big Tobacco in this context.
    He would not be the first enthusiast for free-market Conservatism to do so.

  • Simon McGrath 12th Feb '15 - 5:27pm

    @Gareth – I am in favour of a smoking ban myself – but are you seriously trying to argue that some people are not avoiding pubs because they cant smoke there? There was a very large drop in pub sales when the smoking ban came in.

    Those who would like to review the evidence on the real causes of pub closure will find some interesting reading here;http://www.iea.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/files/Briefing_Closing%20time_web.pdf

  • There’s no point altering planning law unless the underlying problem is tackled. In my view there is a simple and obvious solution: change the way alcohol is taxed so that on-licenses are not so heavily penalised in their competition with off-licenses and supermarkets. This could be achieved by either (a) changing duty so that it’s a fixed amounts rather than a %age of value or (b) altering the system so that on-licenses and off-licenses pay different rates of duty.

  • This is good news from Gareth, a few years back my village campaigned hard against plans to turn our pub into housing (yes the application included the obligatory ‘social housing’ shoe horned in just to tick all the right boxes), it went all the way to public appeal and we won!

    We’ve also since then had to ward off attempts to convert the site to sheltered housing/retirement homes etc. because these scheme’s didn’t provide an equivalent community social venue.

    I’ll be taking a look at the “Assets of Community Value [ACV] process” as it may provide the means by which my community can purchase the pub.

  • Just to add on to my previous comment, the nearest equivalent venue is 4 miles away.

    The root of the problem isn’t so much about real ‘profitability’ but what return the pub owners want to see on their ‘investment’. So a pub, if run as a standalone business, can be profitable, ie. generate sufficient income to cover its costs and the landlord to take a reasonable salary etc. But because they tend to be run as income generators by their owners there is an expectation and requirement for them to generate significant additional income over-and-above the costs I’ve mentioned. As a community buying out a pub, we can remove this burden, get to keep our pub and have it charge more affordable prices (in part because we can now buy supplies on the open market).

  • Dav and Simon – regardless of whether particular pubs are profitable or not – why should pubs be exempt from local planning laws? At the moment if I run an unprofitable corner shop and want to close it and turn it into, say, flats I have to apply for a change of use. This should be pretty straightforward if I can prove the shop is no longer profitable.

    But you wouldn’t have to apply for a change of use if you wanted to turn it into a different kind of shop, would you? And that’s what’s happening with the pubs: they are not being changed into flats, they are being changed form one type of business to another. So why would they need planning permission, any more than I need planning permission to close my unprofitable stationery shop and re-open as a bicycle repair shop which I hope will make more money?

    If I run a pub I can simply change it to an estate agent, small supermarket or knock it down without any say so by the local community.

    A pub is a business providing a service to the community. An estate agent is a business providing a different kind of service. A supermarket is a business providing a different kind of service again.

    They are all, fundamentally, doing the same thing: trying to make money by providing a service. So why should there be any restrictions (beyond ones of, for instance, environmental health, likelihood of pollution / noise / litter being generated, etc) in changing from providing one type of service trying to make a profit to providing another type of service which you hope will be more profitable?

    Pubs are not magic and special fairy places. They are just businesses trying to make a profit and if they can’t make a profit then there clearly is not enough demand and they should shut and be replaced by something which there is a demand for.

    If you want your local pub not to shut, go there lots and spend lots of money. And if you and everyone else does that it won’t shut. Promise you.

  • @Gareth Epps: “would that it were so simple. We are told it would need a derogation from EU law, although I know some colleagues are up for this I can hardly see certain other political parties doing so. The IFS has done some different work on alcohol taxation. But it would help and we should keep pushing.”

    Interesting. I’m glad to hear it has at least been investigated. I’d be interested in more information if you have it: what EU laws would it fall foul of?

  • I challenge you to go into a Tesco, estate agent or betting shop with a group from your local sports club, school group or for that matter political party and sit down and have a meeting. Those things can only be done in a pub

    And if enough people want to do them in a pub, and are willing to pay to do them in a pub, then the pub will make a healthy profit and no one will want to close it because it is making money.

    If not enough people want to do them, then the pub will lose money (or not be as profitable as alternative uses of the land, which amounts to the same thing) and will close.

    Why is this so hard to understand? Pubs are not special rare endangered species that need to be protected, they are businesses providing services. If there is demand for those services they will be profitable and continue to provide them; if where isn’t, they won’t, and the land will be put to better use by providing a service people are willing to pay for.

    You evidently still haven’t read the article. There are daily examples of *viable* pubs being shut down due to property transactions by those who care only about balance sheet value

    I have read the article and did not see one single example of a viable pub — one that was (a) turnign a profit and (b) making more money than could be got by using the land for some alternative use (eg, selling it) —being shut down.

    And I don’t understand why someone would do such a thing? If you own a pub that is bringing in more money than you could get by selling it, why would you sell it? On the other hand, if you could get more money by selling it than it is bringing in, then clearly there is not enough demand for it and you should sell it so the land can be put to better use.

  • peter tyzack 13th Feb '15 - 2:43pm

    Dan touched on the solution. What is needed is a change to the ‘Use Classes Order’ to create a new class, appropriately defined, of ‘Public House’. Then if an owner wanted to vary, or change, what he uses the building for he would need Planning Permission. At present a pub is included within a wide use class and it can readily be changed to anything else within that Use Class without any need to contact the Local Planning Authority.. The Community Buy-out option is only effective where the place is on the market for sale, leasing it neatly avoids that possibility. If the owner can’t make it pay a defined ‘PH’ Use Class would force them to sell, or find a more imaginative pub tenant, or apply for Planning Permission for a Change of Use.

  • I run a small estate agency and it doesn’t make a profit, so I think I’d like to turn it into a pub. But I can’t – I would have to go to the local council and apply for a change of use and consult with my neighbours

    Which is fair enough, because pubs involve disruption and noise that estate agencies don’t, so it’s right that the local people who might be disturbed get a say.

    On the other hand, converting from a pub to an estate agency won’t create any extra noise or disruption for anyone, so why should it be subject to planning restrictions?

    What you are failing (deliberately I wonder?) to understand is that pubs do not have the same planning protection as other businesses ‘providing a service to the community’.

    Why do they need ‘protection’? If they are making money, they will stay open.

    If they aren’t making money, or aren’t making more money than alternative uses for the land, they shouldn’t stay open, because then they are not viable businesses.

    Why should they have ‘protection’? What is next: a council tax exemption for pubs? Direct government subsidies for pubs?

  • You clearly think that it is right that pubs should be treated differently by planning law than all other local businesses, places of worship or ordinary residences

    No, I think pubs should be treated the same as all other local businesses, ie, if they make more money for their owners than alternative uses of the land then they should stay open, but if their owners could make more money either changing them into another type of business or selling them, they should be able to do that.

    If someone owns an estate agent, they can change it into a bicycle repair shop without planning permission. I think that the same should be true of pubs: they should be able to be changed into estate agents with no special permission required.

    You, apparently, think that pubs should get special treatment — that it should be harder to change a pub into an estate agent than an estate agent into a bicycle repair shop.

    You are the one asking for some kind of ‘special treatment’ whereby a pub’s owner could be prevented by a bunch of local busybodies form doing what they want with their property, if they thought the could make more money from it running it as something other than a pub.

  • You are arguing for special treatment of pubs in the planning law. I am arguing for them to be brought into line with all other local businesses

    How so?

    Do you, or do you not, think that the process of turning a pub into an estate agency should be exactly the same as turning a mobile telephone shop into an estate agency (ie, it should involve no necessity to seek change-of-use planning permission)?

    If you do, then we agree.

    But if you do not, then how are you not asking for pubs to be treated differently from other types of business (like estate agencies, mobile telephone hops, bicycle repair shops, etc)?

  • Peter Galton 13th Feb '15 - 5:57pm

    I have done my small part through CAMRA but I am not at active as I should be, but all of us are busy with all manner of things. The one thing that I also should do is use my local pub more often, as they say Use it or lose it.

  • >What is needed is a change to the ‘Use Classes Order’ to create a new class, appropriately defined, of ‘Public House’. (peter tyzack)

    Agreed, in our arguments for our pub we moved the definition away from ‘pub’ because of its popular association with alcohol and borrowed heavily on the messages given out by http://www.pubisthehub.org.uk, namely a pub in many of our communities is much much more than a drinking hole, it is a business run community social venue.

    Obviously, I’m well aware that there are people such as Dav who have no concept of what the value of such community assets might be, until they go to their local parade of shops and discover they closed years back and have been coverted to “social housing” – because ‘social’ housing satisfies a ‘social’ need therefore these are of equivalent value to the community as a parade of shops, but these are largely empty because there are no buses …

    >” the points you make stress the importance of local authorities having good planning policies that protect valued and viable pubs.” (Gareth)
    This is a good starting point – our pub was and is a recognised community asset in the local plans, but unless the ‘pub’ is in community ownership, these don’t stop the owners submitting planning applications for change of use etc. because they will plead that the pub is not viable… In our case the application was only blocked by the councillors banging heads together in the planning department (the planning department have a habit of accepting all applications because it is cheaper and avoids the potential costs of appeals which they might loose…).

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