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.
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.