For a decade now I’ve been fighting against the loss of pubs. I’ve objected to planning applications for conversion and drove the registration, as Assets of Community Value, of the two pubs in the village where I live. Pubs provide important social facilities in our communities and have endured a torrid time in recent years. A combination of cheap, supermarket booze, the smoking ban and the tightening of belts after the global financial crisis have led to a mass extinction of pubs over the last 10 years. The rate of closure is accelerating with almost 30 pubs now being lost each week. But perhaps the most dangerous threat to pubs has come, perversely, from their owners. Forty percent of the country’s pubs are owned by so-called Pub Companies or ‘pubcos’. In my view, this is something of a misnomer as they are in reality nothing more than property companies interested not in the pubs themselves but in the value of the buildings that they inhabit. For years, many pubcos have bled their tenants dry, with exorbitant rent increases and tied purchase, at excessive cost, of everything from beer to electricity. I can go to my local brewery and buy a barrel of beer at a lower price than the tenant of a tied pub. So much for economies of scale and their impact on buying power. Recently, a cross-party collection of MPs defeated the Government by legislating to cut some of the ties between the bigger pubcos and their tenants. The change gives 15,000 British pubs the chance to ask for an independently assessed market rent and allows them to buy beer on the open market rather than from their landlord at grossly-inflated prices.
This is a big step forward but applies only to those pubcos with more than 500 pubs so there is more work to do. The other big threat that remains outstanding is the legislation that enables pubs to be converted into shops without the need for planning permission. In recent years, as many as two pubs per week have been converted into small supermarkets and provided that the floorspace is less than 3,000sq ft, planning permission is not required, the supermarket can just get on with it. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and many others have been campaigning to get the law changed, so far without success. The problem is that the Minister in charge, Conservative MP Brandon Lewis, doesn’t want to change the rules (he didn’t want to cut the pubcos ties either). In a series of recent Twitter exchanges with me, Mr Lewis claims that Councils can use something called an ‘Article 4 Direction’ to remove supermarket’s right to convert pubs without consent. As a qualified planner, I know how difficult it is to use Article 4 Directions. They can open the council up to claims for compensation for example. But I’ve put it to the test and emailed the Leader of Taunton Deane Borough Council and asked him if he would go down this route. Here is an excerpt from his response: –
“Within towns such as Taunton and Wellington I would suggest that to successfully apply and defend an Article 4 direction a Planning Authority would have to demonstrate that there is a proven need for such a facility that is not being met by similar premises within a reasonable distance, well located to residential areas. As a ‘rule of thumb’ a 10 minute walking distance is often used for community facilities. Our Officers are not convinced that within Taunton and Wellington an Article 4 direction could be successfully applied at this stage.”
This is exactly what I expected him to say. It’s no criticism of Mr Williams; he’s merely setting out the rules within which the council has to operate. But it gives the lie to Brandon Lewis’s claim that Councils already have the power to control this attack on pubs. They don’t. So here’s my challenge to the Minister “Back communities not supermarkets and change the rule or we’ll all have to conclude you care more for Tesco than you do for the vitality of our towns and villages.”