Viable pubs need greater protection

By Robert Sayles

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Pubs Public house Local government

Robert Sayles: "The major flaw with issuing ACVs is that pubcos are under no compulsion to sell to groups/individuals wanting to keep their pub"
Robert Sayles: "The major flaw with issuing ACVs is that pubcos are under no compulsion to sell to groups/individuals wanting to keep their pub"
Amidst stories of pubs being converted into supermarkets, housing, betting shops and God knows what else; it’s nice on occasion to hear of a pub that seemingly manages to escape such an ignominious fate, says Robert Sayles.

The Mitre in York is dear to the hearts of locals, one at the very heart of community life.

Enterprise Inns in their infinite wisdom decided they wanted to sell it. Word soon got out; prompting locals to petition Rawcliffe Parish Council to prevent the sale going through. (The fear was that it would be converted into a Tesco Express).

Their pleas met with a sympathetic ear. The council concluding The Mitre is more than merely a meeting place for people to drink. In their view, the contribution of this pub to the community is unique – offering “community facilities” such as a home for sports teams and other leisure pastimes as well as providing a variety of alternative activities for a range of age groups.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Enterprise Inns saw it somewhat differently; arguing the sale should be allowed to proceed as other outlets in the area replicated all the services provided by The Mitre.

The Parish Council disagreed, concluding the sale of the pub would be a devastating loss to the local community. The matter was referred to City of York Council.


Stand-offs such as this are becoming all too commonplace as big pubcos look to offload large chunks of their estate, (Punch have sold off almost 50%, ETI close on 30% since 2008). The concern is that in the clamour to downsize, both appear increasingly unsympathetic to the plight of local communities.

On this occasion, York City Council concurred with the lobbyists, granting The Mitre ACV (Asset of Community Value) status.

So, all’s well that ends well? Or is it?

After the initial euphoria had abated, thoughts turned to the implications, not only for this particular pub, but numerous others caught in a tug-of-war between the conflicting interests of pubcos and communities.

It’s true community groups can now petition local councils to grant ACV status to their local pub. But what’s the likely outcome even if such an appeal is upheld? In the case of the Mitre for instance, how much protection does it actually now have?

Well, in the words of Paul Daniels, “not a lot”. ACV status grants nothing more than a temporary stay of execution - giving community groups a mere six months to put a bid together to purchase the pub.

The major flaw with issuing ACVs is that pubcos are under no compulsion to sell to groups/individuals wanting to keep their pub. In fact, after the allocated 6 months have elapsed they’re well within their rights to sell to anyone they please, even if community groups match or even better offers from those seeking alternative usage.


So my question is this. What’s the point of granting ACV status to a pub when it’s only valid for a limited period of time? If a pub is an asset to the community now, that’s hardly likely to change six months down the line, is it?

What’s all too apparent is that ACV status does not offer sufficient protection to viable pubs. What it does do is allow local councils the opportunity to sleep well at night. They can now say they did what they could before ‘doing a Pontius Pilate’ i.e. washing their hands of the matter.

In fairness to them, it’s not their fault the law is an ass. They can only work with what they’re given – in this case weak legislation. How many times have we lamented this particular shortfall when it comes to pubs?

Now let’s be clear about this; no-one is saying ALL​ pubs need to be saved. Many are undoubtedly no longer sustainable, but given the clamour to service debt I would suggest the distinction between ‘viable’ and ‘unviable’ is becoming increasingly blurred.

Given the obvious conflict of interest, pubcos should not be permitted to play God. The problem is some most certainly are, and Government appear content to allow them to do so. Good pubs are shutting down merely because pubcos have decreed they’re surplus to requirements. No slot on the corporate Monopoly board for local communities it seems.

Pub is the Hub

Pubs form an integral part of the communal web, helping to bring people together – particularly invaluable at a time when people appear increasingly reluctant to engage, pre-occupied as they are with interaction through social media.

If anyone is in any doubt as to the unique contribution pubs make, then we need only think back to the ‘Pub is the Hub’ campaign.

On its website the BBPA states “the pub is often the centre or hub of community life and can also provide essential services beyond the usual drinks, food or entertainment”.

I couldn’t agree more. The problem is such noble sentiments are conveniently overlooked when pubcos feel obliged to quell the insatiable hunger of the debt ogre sitting in the middle of the room.

Everyone acknowledges the world has moved on. People’s social habits and expectations have changed in ways no-one could have envisaged. Pubs have undoubtedly felt the full force of the leisure revolution.

That said, there are still a great many pub-goers out there; many of whom are asking the same questions. Why are seemingly viable pubs closing? Why has no-one felt it right to empower local authorities with weaponry potent enough to stem the carnage?

Thanks to the Town and Country Planning Act, (1995) pubs can be converted into retail outlets without the approval of the local planning authority. This quick fix option makes them particularly attractive to the likes of supermarkets and property developers.

Pubcos come and go; communities on the other hand are a permanent fixture. Is it right therefore that the short-term interests of the former should prevail over the long-term interests latter?

Article 4

The only legislation that affords genuine protection to pubs is Article 4; requiring developers to submit a planning application for any proposed conversions. This allows sufficient time for the merits of the sale to be assessed before being approved or rejected by the local authority.

It’s a strategy used to great effect by Cambridge City Council.

Brandon Lewis is now seeking to reduce the potency of Article 4. This from the very same man who pledged pubs would be “well looked after” following his promotion to Minister of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government.

It’s already apparent that he’s far more proactive in his role of Housing and Planning Minister that he ever was as Community Pubs Minister – also somewhat ironically; his proposals seek to dilute the one piece of legislation that offers protection to viable pubs.

Little wonder the word ‘Judas’ comes to mind.  

In his view the proposals “will help scrap even more red tape and make it even easier to get the homes and shops communities want built”.

It is a flawed argument and fails to acknowledge one undeniable fact. If a local council invokes Article 4 then there’s invariably a good reason for doing so - the processes and timescales involved are after all, both costly and lengthy.  

Patsy Dell, head of planning services at Cambridge City Council, makes it clear the agenda is not about protecting all pubs at any cost. “It’s not about protecting failing pubs” she says, “it’s about enabling scrutiny at the right time as to whether the loss of that pub site is justified”.

Brandon Lewis’s planned reforms merely seek to ensure the layers of scrutiny are removed from the equation; allowing more and more community assets to disappear with the minimum of fuss. Just as importantly for a government with an election on the horizon, it will help speed up the removal of unsightly blots on the landscape, (nothing more politically unsightly than large numbers of boarded up premises dotting the landscape).

Perhaps Government might consider giving more thought as to the cause rather than merely legislating for the effect?      

Saving pubs

James Watson is a leading campaigner in the fight to save pubs. He’s currently battling a property developer to prevent his beloved local, the Chesham Arms in Hackney, being converted into flats.

It’s been a protracted campaign; one that has required endeavour, tenacity and no small amount of commitment. The website set up to publicise the campaign bears testimony to the strength of feeling amongst locals convinced the pub is a community asset worth saving.

Having seen many local pubs disappear from the landscapes, James argues planning laws governing pubs need to be strengthened not diluted. It’s a message the Housing and Planning Minister would do well to heed.

Pubcos of course would argue many pubs are simply no longer viable. The counter to such an argument is that if ‘unviable pubs’ are the national phenomenon they claim, why aren’t the likes of Thwaites and Everards also downsizing?

It seems the disease of ‘unviable pubs’ is a phenomenon peculiar to both Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns; a fact which leads us to one inescapable conclusion.

Debt requirements are riding roughshod over the interests of local communities.

I suspect that in their haste to pronounce death, the ‘coroners’ have shown a marked reluctance to carry out a full autopsy. (The cursory nature of the examination perhaps explains why many pubs have thrived when relieved of the burdensome yoke of the tied model).

Local councils which recognise the importance of specific pubs need to be empowered, to ensure they’re not consigned to the mass grave in coffins labelled ‘unviable pubs’, simply because pubcos decree they’re surplus to requirements.

Categorising a pub as an Asset of Community Value will do little to prevent this practice from continuing.

That is why it’s imperative Brandon Lewis’s proposed reforms to Article 4 are opposed by all those who profess a love of pubs. It’s the one potent weapon local councils have in their armoury.

For the sake of our pubs we need to ensure they retain it.    

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