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Time at the bar
Planning – 4 June 2010

Many pubs have been lost as landlords realise their potential for conversion to higher-value uses but now planners are likely to find themselves at the forefront of a preservation drive, Mark Smulian finds

As the poet Hilaire Belloc put it: "When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England." __He might have referred to the rest of the UK too. But those who care about the future of pubs had something to raise their glasses to just before the general election, when outgoing planning minister John Healey announced measures to help endangered pubs stay in business.

Healey may have had one eye on the drinking voter, but there is a growing consensus that action is needed to save pubs from closure because of the role they play as community hubs, particularly in villages or isolated suburban areas. It seems to be shared by the new government. The first point in deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's statement on the "big society" was that it would give "communities a greater say over their local planning system and saving local services, such as post offices and pubs".

According to a report last year by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), 39 pubs are closing every week. Many others that remain in business are barely surviving. This might appear to be the drinks industry's problem, but planners are involved because a number of the measures proposed to save pubs turn on planning issues.

A mixture of changing social attitudes and commercial factors lies behind pubs' plight. The IPPR report found that "many industrial and village communities surrounding local pubs have changed out of all recognition, reducing the number of devoted pub regulars in some areas". Also, more people now drink wine than beer, the mainstay of most pubs' income.

There is now a wider choice of leisure pursuits and there has been a significant increase in drinking at home. Beer prices in pubs have risen faster than those in supermarkets and the costs of running a pub have risen faster than takings.

Finally, the industry has changed under the phenomenon of the large national so-called "pubcos", which treat them as property assets rather than community facilities.

"There is evidence that tenants of some large pub companies are finding it hard to compete because of the higher prices they are paying for their tied beer. There is also a lack of transparency in the way some companies calculate their rents," says the IPPR. It argues that pubs are not just businesses but have an important role in sustaining communities because they provide a social meeting place and inject an average of 80,000 into the local economy each year.

The institute notes that very little alcohol-related disorder results from community pubs serving residential areas, in particular those that host a wide variety of community events and activities. It points out that many pubs double up as post offices, general stores and broadband internet providers. Among its recommendations is a reform of planning law to provide more protection for community pubs, including greater use by local authorities of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 "to help them safeguard pubs as important local amenities".

The last government's proposed measures included new powers for planners to intervene before a pub is demolished, "giving a pause in the system for the local community to have their say". __This would make it harder to close a pub and sell the site on for housing or some other higher-value use. Planning laws would also allow pubs to branch out without fresh planning permission into new ventures such as restaurants and gift shops.

The Use Classes Order allows pubs to diversify into food or incorporate a shop without planning permission, and pubs that do so tend to fare better commercially. Healey also reminded councils that PPS4 provides tools for them to take account of a pub's importance to a community when deciding on planning applications.

Restrictive covenants are another vexed issue. Healey urged councils to use the act to stop pubcos from imposing them. These normally arise when a company owns two pubs near each other. __When one closes a covenant is often applied ruling out future pub use, so as to protect takings at the remaining outlet. The Ministry of Justice is due to consult on removal of the right to impose such covenants after Newcastle City Council, Ryedale District Council and Darlington Borough Council raised the matter under the act.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) feels strongly about the protection of pubs and looks to planners for help. "We were very pleased with Healey's announcements. We look to local authorities to use these and existing powers to protect pubs and close the loophole that allows a pub to be demolished without the need for planning consent," declares head of public affairs Jonathan Main.

CAMRA believes that many closed pubs could have continued to serve local communities in the right hands and provide a decent living for those running them. To help with assessment, it has produced a guide to local vitality tests (see panel, left) and is working with the IPPR to come up with a formal test of pubs' social value. __"Planning powers should control change of pubs to another use by assessing their community value and also their commercial potential. Just because one person cannot run it as a viable business doesn't mean that someone else cannot," Main argues.

"The great thing about pubs is that they are places that bring people together in a community from different backgrounds. When they close, that can destroy a community. Permitted development rights mean that changes to pubs do not require planning permission, except for residential."We think that they should, otherwise they are turned into shops and restaurants. The system is too flexible at present."

The British Beer and Pub Association, whose members include the large pub landlords, does not like the idea of special protection for pubs. "We are looking for realism rather than saying there is a fixed number of pubs and none of them can ever close. We do not want a separate use class as it is difficult to define," says communications director Mark Hastings.

Although pub closures are a national issue, East Anglia has been a particular focus. Suffolk County Council has adopted policies to protect pubs. It also awards grants of up to 5,000 with matched funding. "These pubs are the heart of their communities and we try to stop them going out of business," explains business development officer Yvonne Moores.

"The grant scheme is a great success. For every pound we spend we get 6 of private investment," Moores calculates. "Our impact assessment shows that keeping facilities in villages helps the local economy and social well-being and has environmental benefits if people do not have to drive miles for shopping, the post or the pub."

South Norfolk District Council has also adopted a detailed policy to keep pubs open as far as possible. "This is a quiet rural area and most places only have one hub," a spokesman says. "Nothing will keep a pub in business if it is not economic, but we require applicants to pass an economic test if they want a change of use to prove that a pub cannot remain open."

At Uttlesford District Council, powers to refuse change of use have been deployed to stop pubs turning into houses. "Conversion applications involve a loss of amenity in a village because if pubs stay open other businesses can be run from them, such as post offices," says senior planning officer Susan Nicholas. "If a pub is put up for sale and we are asked for a change of use, we would want the owner to show that it has been properly offered for sale as a going concern."

Help is also available to councils that want to assist village pubs from Pub is the Hub, an organisation that works with Business Link to enable rural communities to take ownership of pubs and to diversify. It has helped 360 pubs since 2001.

Pubs now seem to enjoy cross-party support and the struggle to protect them will be waged with new weapons in councils' hands.

Pub Viability Test

- Population density in catchment area.

- Visitor potential.

- Degree of competition from other pubs.

- Prospects for unused parts of the pub to be brought into other uses to improve its commercial potential.

- Convenient car parking. - Accessibility by reliable public transport.

- Prospects for multiple community uses such as a shop, post office or community centre.

Source: CAMRA

Appeal Arguments

A proposal to change a pub in a Wiltshire village to residential use was rejected by an inspector. The applicants argued that the pub was not viable because it had lost 40,000 in the previous year. But the inspector found that the only other nearby pub mostly sold beer and lacked family facilities or potential to offer an extensive range of food.

He concluded that the loss of the pub would be detrimental to the community and that the applicants appeared to have paid more than the business was worth based on its turnover. Letters from residents suggested that the premises had developed an unfriendly environment and the inspector accepted that the pub would be viable if it met local demands.