This week saw CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) take place at Olympia in London. Over 55,000 attendees and 900 beers to try, it is the biggest piece of publicity the organisation has each year, so quite rightly they launch their high profile campaigns around the same time. The last few years it has been the beer duty reduction campaign, but now that has got action, they have moved onto the people who serve that beer, the pubs.

As most of you will know, when a pub shuts down, a number quickly become part of one of the supermarkets mini mart chains (Sainsburys Local, Tesco Metro / Express etc), a number are turned into fast food joints such as McDonalds, others are turned into flats or the pub demolished to make room for a new development. The latter two conversions require planning permission to change the use of the land from commercial to residential, the former two do not need planning permission and hence the pub companies which own most of these shuttered sites are quite happy to take the purchase price or rent money from a supermarket chain and have a building they no longer have to maintain, manage or operate.

In fact the list of businesses that a pub can be converted to without permission is quite long, and extends past supermarkets to restaurants, estate agents, payday lenders among many others. CAMRA estimate that 31 pubs a week close in the UK, approx 1500 per year, out of a stock of about 50,000. This is up from 26 a week a year ago. Once a pub stops being a pub, it rarely ever returns to it original usage.  The reason for this easy conversion is a loop hole in a 1995 act of Government concerning planning rules.  Camra has called for the government to tighten planning legislation, making it harder for developers to convert pubs and obliging them to apply to local authorities for permission. Of course the Government are happy with the status quo with the minister for communities, Steven Williams warning that “excessive restrictions on changing the use of buildings would be counter-productive, leading to more empty, boarded-up buildings”.

This is from the same Government who are also attempting to stitch up the Statutory Code regarding the pub companies and their tied pubs so it suits the same pub companies who will benefit from easy disposal / rental of land and buildings to help pay off the huge debt piles which seem to go hand in hand with such businesses. Pub companies are also so keen on this option as it also means that competition for other pubs it might own in area will be reduced, where they hope for increased footfall and subsequent rent raising opportunities will occur.

The minister suggests using the Asset of Community Value rights to stop the conversion to other purposes, but this then relies on the community being able to raise the funds to buy the pub from the PubCo, who don’t exactly discount the premises when selling them. It has worked in Hebden Bridge, where you have a relatively close knit community and a good number of individuals who have retired whilst decent pension schemes were still running or with other disposable income who can invest. The Fox and Goose is going strong now and deserves all its success with congratulations to all who invested and help run the pub.   However the Dog and Duck on the local ex-council estate where there is higher unemployment or more people being supported by the state is not so lucky, who has the money in the immediate area to be able to put in £1000 or more, and where do you find 100 of them at least. It won’t happen and the pub will be converted in short time. You find that most pubs saved under the Asset of Community Value legislation is in relatively well off areas, the supply of money being no coincidence here.

A CAMRA report “Public Houses: How councils and communities can save pubs” says that “Pubs are more than just businesses, and more than just drinking establishments; they provide a very real and important service to many communities, in a variety of ways. They help to strengthen social networks between people who might not otherwise meet, host events, clubs and meetings that are necessary for community cohesion…once they are gone it is difficult to bring them back“. They are absolutely right, people don’t have meetings at Tesco Express, QuickQuid or Big Commission Estate Agents, people go for a social pint to discuss matters at hand or the world in general.

Add in that CAMRA estimate “pubs typically add £80,000 to local economies every year. They generate more revenue and jobs per pint of beer, than beer sold through supermarkets”.  I think that even without the money issue, the first point I quote is key. Pubs are for the community, many other businesses are not.

  1. James Watson says:

    Great article. Agree with everything you say. One small point, you do not need planning consent to demolish a pub unless the pub is attached to another building, is a listed building, or is in a conservation area. Ordinary, free-standing, non-listed boozers can be bulldozed with 6 weeks notice to the local authority. This is the Building Act 1984. This is another loophole that CAMRA is trying to get closed. You are spot on about ACVs. The government wants hardworking communities to attempt to do the job that the planning system should be doing for them! Why should we stump up to line the pockets of property developers and pubcos, who bought historic community pubs with the intention of turning them into something totally different, and making a fast buck in the process. It’s wrong. There are 500 pubs ACVd at present. That’s 1% of all pubs. How many of the 500 are saved? Only about 26. Only 1 pub from the 31 ACVd in London has been bought out by the community. In many cases, the greedy owners will not sell. Then what? ACVs are an ineffective gimmick. What our pubs really need is robust planning protection. Support http://www.pubsmatter.org.uk