Saturday, 16 August 2014

The best-laid plans

Given all the discussion at present about pubs and the planning system, I thought it would be worth looking into the subject in a bit more detail. I found this document which gives a pretty good overview of the rules applying to change of use.

Pubs fall into Use Class A4 “Drinking establishments” and can be converted without needing planning permission to A3 “Restaurants”, A2 “Financial and professional services” and A1 “Shops”. The thinking behind this is that planning permission shouldn’t be needed to convert premises to uses that are likely to have less adverse impact on the local community.

It should be noted, though, that planning permission is needed to convert pubs to residential use, and is also needed if any change of use involves demolition or significant external alterations. So essentially the further restrictions CAMRA is calling for involve requiring planning permission to convert existing pub buildings, largely unaltered, to restaurants, bank branches or retail.

The restaurant element can be discounted, as the boundary between the two is very blurred and it isn’t difficult to turn a pub into something that to all intents and purposes is a restaurant but still retains a small bar at which you can in theory just buy a drink. There are plenty of Indian “restaurant and bar” establishments in former pubs that must come into this category.

The idea of pubs being turned into banks is a little far-fetched – indeed it isn’t that long ago when it was commonplace to see conversions going the other way. So basically we are just left with retail premises. What people are concerned about are examples where apparently entirely viable pubs have been abruptly closed and then suddenly turned into a Tesco Express without any form of public consultation. If it needed planning permission, the argument goes, then it would all be out in the open, and other pub operators and community groups would be given the opportunity to make a bid.

While this has happened in a few cases, in reality, the instances where others are going to come in and make an offer to keep the place in operation as a pub are relatively scarce. It is far more common for a struggling pub to close its doors and then remain boarded up for twelve months or more before someone comes along with a plan to turn it into a shop. There will have been plenty of time for others to bid, but it just doesn’t happen. There are three local examples of former pubs that have been turned into convenience stores, such as the White Lion in Withington shown above, all of which had been previously closed for some time, and I’m not aware of any attempts to keep them going as pubs.

In recent years, two of the four nearest pubs to me have closed. The Four Heatons has now been demolished and is being rebuilt as a convenience store with flats above, which of course did need planning permission. While once a thriving pub, the smoking ban effectively sealed its fate and I doubt whether many will have mourned its passing. It was closed and boarded for three years before building work started. Likewise, there hasn’t been any evidence of interest in reviving the Woolpack (pictured right) as a pub. Again, this was once highly-regarded but, on an awkward site with minimal car parking and no nearby houses, it had struggled for a while, and in fact closed once, was then revived for a couple of years by new owners, but now seems to have closed for good. Requiring planning permission for change of use would not magically bring these pubs back to life; it would simply keep them closed and boarded for longer.

In a blogpost that no doubt will ruffle a few feathers, Martyn Cornell points out two more significant drawbacks of CAMRA’s proposals. The first is that, once it became clear that new planning controls were on their way to the statute book, there would inevitably be a stampede amongst pub operators to convert some of their more marginal outlets to retail use, thus precipitating the loss of even more pubs. And, if you had to get planning permission to convert even the smallest bar in a shopping parade to an optician’s or a delicatessen, it would make people far more reluctant to open new bars in the first place, and banks to lend them money. The growth in new outlets in former retail premises, from Wetherspoon’s to micropubs, has been one of the biggest sources of change and innovation in the licensed trade in recent years. The end result would not be a more successful pub sector, but one that was smaller, more stagnant and less able to respond to changes in the marketplace.

It’s possible to think of ways of mitigating the second problem, such as setting a size threshold below which the planning requirement did not apply, or allowing the reconversion to retail of new bars within a period of x years, and points such as this would need to be carefully considered. At a time when the future of High Streets is a live political issue, making the planning system more rigid and unresponsive could easily end up acting against their regeneration.

As I have said before, the idea that stricter planning controls would save any significant number of pubs from closure is complete pie in the sky and, sadly, CAMRA is once again wasting its campaigning efforts on a wild goose chase.


  1. Has CAMRA have made these proposals as a result of an AGM mandate? I can't believe that supposedly intelligent people would have made this a campaigning issue without realising it's actually counter-productive to their aims.

    On another note, closed pubs are so popular with supermarkets because of their premises licenses which are usually maintained when closed and for sale. New premises licenses for alcohol retail are very hard to come by in most areas.

  2. CAMRA isn't defacto a left wing organisation but most of it's activists fall into an educated middle class demographic that enjoys a working class establishment. Very different from a social climbing mindset that want prosperity, a bigger house, a better car, a posher lifestyle, a bottle of prosecco.

    Most, in my observation, are public sector employed guardian reading labour/lib dem voters. That doesn't make them bad people but it informs an outlook on life which is at best sceptical of market driven outcomes.

    Hence the nonesense of flirting with minimum pricing and a belief that planning regulations have no cost.

    On a positive note, most are a great laugh to get pissed up with.

  3. I deal with planning every day. And these are utterly daft proposals that simply don't address the 'problem'. This can be set out is simply (ignoring the reasons for decline) - the typical pub premises is unsuitable, designed for a different time and expensive to run. No planning regulation will change these facts.

  4. Cooking Lager's CAMRA review
    Yep CL not far of the mark, but just a few little add ons to clarify their meaning in a wider society. They are mostly non productive,non manual,laissez adherents of a centralised control philosophy,their eyes blind to the real world of back streets and folded industry,they
    shuffle around self and those nearest,the froth on their mead more critical than the closure of a thousand paupers taverns.
    Thankfully they are few.

  5. Pubs opened since 2005 due the Licensing act of 2003? Pubs closed and now re-opened and thriving because they are now free houses? Pubs closed and re-opened by community groups?
    BTW - premises licenses are not hard to come by they are easier that was the point in changing the law. Ultimately, the market decides on the viability of any business and the market has decided it does not like shit, run down, unloved, badly run, owned by greedy pub companies pushing the same formulaic bollocks that has made pubs a dogs dinner.

  6. When you consider the true damage pubs cause society, the broken families, rampant alcoholism, broken people, overrun A&E, human pain and suffering on a scale that has all decent people appalled, the only thing wrong with planning regulation is that pubs are allowed to be built in the first place.

    It should be as easy as possible to close a pub and turn it into something useful to society. It should be made impossible to build these temples of sin, drink, licentiousness and alcohol dependency.

  7. @ anonymous - premises licenses are indeed hard to come by. In theory that shouldn'[t be the case as you say, but in practice local authorities use a barrage of methods to prevent granting applications, including 'Cumulative Impact Statements' and the like. The 'market' was distorted by the Beer Orders: Thatcher's dream of a true free market is unsustainable in our economy, which led to the massive economic upheaval that made pubs unviable to tenants. The unloved badly-run pubs come from years of neglect due to that market distortion, ably assisted by the supermarkets and brewers screwing the on-trade.

  8. At the time CAMRA was fully supportive of the beer orders, in a desire to break up monopolistic practices. I don't believe they made an argument that it could end up with the current pub co's

  9. Indeed Cookie.CAMRA perhaps have a track record then of not being able to see the potential consequences of their campaigning on serious issues.

    At the time of the Beer Orders I was dead against it, as better the devil you know, and it wasn't a monopoly in the first place. There would have still been room for the countless new breweries that have popped up since.

  10. Well I dunno, but lots of places boarded-up pubs are well outnumbered by closed shops.

  11. At the time of the Beer Orders there was a remarkable lack of thought as to what the practical consequences will turn out to be.

    I didn't start writing this nonsense until 1993, but I vaguely remember at the time thinking that it was likely to lead to more market concentration, not less.

  12. Large numbers of shops have closed because, as with pubs, the market has changed and they're the wrong kind of premises in the wrong kind of locations.

    The people converting pubs to shops are not in general rejecting closed shops nearby that would serve the purpose equally well.

  13. The 'cumulative' par t of the licence application is for example in a city centre where there are 50 bars in an area and the licencing officer and police believe that 51 will be the straw that broke the camels back. For most towns, they will have lost say 5 pubs and therefore the Cumulative Impact is not relevant for the opening of just one bar to replace one of the five lost and the Licencing Act would see the opposition as vexatious or irrelevant. The Licencing Officer follows the licencing objectives and increased competition is not relevant to the licensing objective but the potential for crime, nuisance and public safety is, hence Cumulative Impact. (soz if this is all sucking eggs)

  14. Most lost pubs have not been in the nightlife hotspots where the cumulative impact principle applies, so it isn't really relevant.

    My impression is that, given the number of bars that have opened up in former shops in the past decade, it is a lot easier to open new ones than it used to be.

  15. The cumulative impact of any pub is to add to the despair and decay of the unfortunate community it is imposed upon. One pub is one too many.

  16. temperance tim, too true and I agree with your sentiment. Next we need to rid society of religious nutters and then the free-thinking atheists and anti-theists can drive society up the evolutionary ladder.


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