Analysis: Wandsworth's pub protection should set a precedent

By Nikkie Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Protected: the Alchemist in Battersea was ordered to be rebuilt after it was demolished last year
Protected: the Alchemist in Battersea was ordered to be rebuilt after it was demolished last year

Related tags Pubs Local government

Wandsworth Council has taken the first new step in a bid to stop pubs being changed from their original use without council approval. Here, we look at what the move means and whether it is the silver bullet needed to save pubs. Nikkie Sutton reports.

The ongoing fight to save pubs has taken a huge step forward after Wandsworth Council, in south-west London issued an Article 4 (A4) direction to prevent 120 pubs in the borough being converted for other uses by removing permitted development rights from the sites.

This ground-breaking move means that Wandsworth is the first council in the UK to go through the long and rigorous process to grant the direction​, which took two years to complete. The move was prompted by the protracted fight over the Wheatsheaf in Tooting, which became the authority’s first A4. The council was dubbed ‘the country’s most pub-friendly council’ after the Article 4 plans were revealed last year and Jonathan Cook, deputy leader at Wandsworth Council, told The Morning Advertiser: “We have had many examples over the years, including one quite recently, of some nasty surprises where a much-loved pub that’s very popular with our residents, suddenly changes into something else.

“We were left thinking ‘what happened there?’ and we, as a planning authority, are often left puzzled and frustrated because we don’t have any rights or powers to look at it. But now, if somebody does want to change the use of a pub, we can look at criteria such as the pub’s historical or architectural value, whether it is a community venue or is already listed.

“If somebody does want to make that change then we are saying that the local community has got a stake in this place and so has the council. We care about the place and, at the very least, we want the opportunity to look at it and make a decision rather than just be faced with a nasty surprise.”

Last year, developers bulldozed the Alchemist in Battersea​ and the council point-blank refused to grant a retrospective planning application meaning it had to be rebuilt. “This was a nice example that we care about pubs and we will not tolerate this,” says Cook.

Illegal demolition

The Alchemist was the second pub that was knocked down and ordered to be rebuilt following Westminster City Council’s decision to order developers to rebuild Kilburn’s Carlton Tavern after they illegally demolished the pub​. So, what does this, combined with Wandsworth’s Article 4 mean for the rest of London’s pubs?

A spokesman for think-tank London Councils, which represents the city’s 32 borough councils says: “We are concerned by the loss of pubs through permitted development. We support the increased use of Article 4 directions to protect pubs and believe that boroughs should have control over permitted development rights in their areas to ensure that potentially harmful development proposals can be assessed through a full planning process.
“We recognise and welcome the Government’s legislation that means pubs can become listed as assets of community value (ACVs). However, not all pubs are listed as ACVs and many are still at risk of being converted to supermarkets or other uses. Providing boroughs with more powers to protect their local pubs is not about protecting failing pubs, but enabling scrutiny of whether the loss of a pub site is justified.”
Cook believes the Article 4 legislation along with ACVs can work together to protect pubs. He says: “Some of the 120 pubs are also ACVs, which is a slightly different thing, but I would say they are potentially complementary. It is another layer as, though they are not quite the same thing, they are certainly not in conflict and I think both can co-exist.”

London Councils also says that not only are pubs part of the social and cultural fabric of the nation, they also provide thousands of jobs and boost the economy by £21bn a year and are a critical part of local economies. Cook wants the legislation to set a precedent and is urging other councils in the capital to follow Wandsworth’s lead and safeguard their pubs. He says: “I would hope that other councils will look at it and do what we have done. We think the case is a very clear one and the reaction to what we have done is absolutely enormous and overwhelmingly positive, which is encouraging.
“People clearly agree with us that there is an important issue and we know that the issue is not confined to Wandsworth so I very much hope other councils will do something similar, but that is up to them.”

National implications

With Wandsworth being the first council in the UK to make this huge step, what does it mean for pubs across the nation? The Local Government Association (LGA) say councils recognise that pubs are one of the “cornerstones of our communities” by bringing people together, and local authorities aim to support responsible premises to survive and thrive.

“National permitted development rules allow developers to convert existing buildings to homes without taking into account the views of local residents. Councils will do what they can, such as introduce Article 4 orders, to ensure communities are able to shape development to meet local needs and ambitions. Councils work with com-munities through the planning system to shape the places where they want to live and work.”

The LGA also says local authorities will keep battling against plans to demolish and convert pubs: “Councils will take action against developers that fail to take into account the interests of the community, as evidenced by demolishers of pubs being ordered to rebuild them brick by brick. “No one wants a pub to lie empty, of course, if the business isn’t viable. But if a community has highlighted a pub as being important to them then protection must be provided so councils can help them to shape their own neighbourhoods and high streets.”

Development protection

Kevin Sweeney, who is the general manager at Star Pubs & Bars-owned Park Tavern, which is one of the 120 sites listed under the Article 4 direction, says: “It is going to stop the rampant property developers taking the pubs out of the system.”

Tom Learmont, who is the general manager at the Young’s-owned Duke of Cambridge, which is also one of the 120 says: “It is great because it protects us, protects the pub trade and it is definitely something cities should have. In this area, there have been quite a few pubs that have been purchased by big organisations like Tesco and Sainsbury’s and converted into convenience stores so it does give us protection against that.

Bodies such as the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) and the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) have also had their say on the legislation. The ALMR wants councils to remember that licensed premises need the chance to grow.

ALMR chief executive Kate Nicholls says: “It is certainly important that viable pubs, which are making contributions, driving growth and employing people in their local economies are protected and supported by the planning regime. Pubs are vital employers in their areas and important social hot spots, and the ALMR has been pushing to make sure that these businesses are afforded some protection.
“Local authorities need to strike a balance to ensure that viable pubs, bars and restaurants have the opportunity to thrive. They also need to ensure pubs are not wrapped in so much red tape that it restricts
normal commercial development.

“We have seen examples of struggling pubs being listed as ACVs with licensees left in the difficult position of pushing ahead with a pub that is impractical and pubs that have remained shut despite there being a new operator in the wings because the local council wants the original pub preserved in aspic. We want a system that makes sure pubs can flourish, but this cannot be a one-size-fits-all blanket approach.”

Case-by-case scrutiny

The BBPA says it agrees with laws to keep pubs safe, but wants councils to look at each case specifically: “We certainly want to see as many thriving pubs as possible and it is right that there are laws to protect pubs that are of real value, to local people and local communities. This can be done by using the laws that make a pub an asset of community value (ACV).

“However, as each pub’s situation is different, this should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. We are against blanket measures because every case should be judged on its own merits. In some cases, a pub might not be viable. A measure like this then makes it very difficult to sell and restricts investment, having a huge financial impact. This could be devastating, particularly for independent pub owners, for whom the pub might be their only major asset."

The BBPA also says there are other issues surrounding the trade that should be looked into as well: “We would like to see the debate around pub closures focusing on policies that would support pubs, such as lower taxes on beer and fairer business rates, creating a climate for innovation and investment that ensures our great pubs can attract customers and prosper. “

Related topics Property law

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