Pubs matter - but enough to change planning laws?

By Mike Berry contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Pubs, Great british beer festival, Campaign for real ale, Government

Mike Berry: "The debate goes right to the heart of what we as a society think of pubs and how we interact with them"
Mike Berry: "The debate goes right to the heart of what we as a society think of pubs and how we interact with them"
Amid the silly hats, Royal and rock star appearances and general beery buzz of the Great British Beer Festival, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) launched an important new campaign that could have a significant impact on the future of many pubs across the country.

The Pubs Matter campaign calls on the Government to tighten planning laws to make it harder for pubs in England and Wales to be demolished or converted for alternative use. Under planning laws introduced in 1995, pubs can be turned into shops, supermarkets or a number of other businesses without planning permission from local authorities.

CAMRA argues that pubs are a different proposition to these other businesses and that communities can be left powerless when a local pub is left threatened with conversion or demolition.

Blind spot

The campaign has support from a growing number of MPs of all political colours, perhaps seeing it as an easy way of demonstrating their ‘pub-friendly’ credentials to voters in the run-up to next year’s general election.

Ostensibly, it does seem that the Government has a blind spot when it comes to pubs and this particular piece of planning law. Why legislate that any new betting shops need to get planning permission, but ignore the right for communities to have a say when a pub could be lost?

The language used by campaigners is highly emotive; they refer to “much-loved” pubs being made vulnerable by existing legislation and speak of communities being left “powerless” as pubs are “targeted” for conversion by supermarkets.

Bureaucracy

The debate goes right to the heart of what we as a society think of pubs and how we interact with them. Do we see them as more than just bricks and mortar to be traded without restriction, and as genuine assets of community value that deserve special treatment? Or do we, if the “community” has failed to support a pub, for whatever reason, and the owner decides to sell up, ask why the pub-goer’s needs should trump those of the property owner?

My concern with this potential law change is the added bureaucracy and cost it will bring to the planning system. If pubs have to undergo planning scrutiny before being sold or converted, who makes that assessment on the pub’s future viability prospects?

Are planning departments qualified to make that judgement? Or will it need a specialist business appraisal from outside experts to calculate a new concept of ‘Fair Maintainable Viability’? Who pays for that?

And if these experts decide that a pub must stay as a pub and planning permission is refused, where does that leave the freeholder who wants to sell up and cash in their asset?

Subjective

Advocates of the new legislation will argue that it’s not for the freeholder to take a subjective view on viability and the current situation has been brought about because the vast majority of pubs seeking change of use permissions are owned by the larger pubcos. CAMRA says that two pubs a week were converted to supermarkets between January 2012 and January 2014.

There are two sides of the argument as ever. It will be fascinating to see which way the Government leans.

Related topics: Legislation

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