Pubs: Increased Planning Protection for Britain’s Boozers?

By Steve Renshaw

This blog relates to a subject particularly close to my heart…pubs.

The Government has recently announced changes to the General Permitted Development Order to remove permitted development rights for drinking establishments (A4 Use Class) listed as Assets of Community Value (ACVs). Currently A4 Use Classes can be converted to A1 (retail), A2 (financial and professional services) or A3 (restaurant) uses without the need for planning permission.

Section 87 of the Localism Act introduced the requirement for Local Authorities to maintain a list of buildings or land that are of community value by virtue of them furthering the social well-being or social interests of the local community. The Act also allowed designation of assets of community value where they had in the past or could within a five year period in the future further a community’s social well-being. This gives communities the right to bid for the asset when it came up for sale although there is no compulsion upon the owner to sell the asset to the community group bidding. Where a listed asset comes up for sale, a community group has 6 weeks to register an interest in purchasing the asset with a six month moratorium period for them to then prepare a bid during which the asset cannot be sold by the owner.

As of February 2015, the Act has been used to list 1,800 assets listed of which 600 are pubs. As a Manchester City fan, I would perhaps question the actual community value of some of the ‘assets’ listed such as Old Trafford Stadium but that perhaps is the subject of another blog!

Since the provisions were introduced, the moratorium period had been triggered by community groups 122 times and 11 assets were purchased by local groups, less than 1% of the total number of assets listed. There had been criticisms that the ‘right to bid’ provisions did not afford sufficient protection to assets and particularly the 600 pubs listed. An example often cited is The Golden Harp in Maidenhead whereby the pub was listed as an asset of community value but converted from a pub using permitted development rights notwithstanding this. The asset of community value designation therefore afforded no protection to pub changing its use.

CAMRA figures suggest that 31 pubs a week are closing in the UK and that 2 of these a week are being converted to convenience stores. Between February 2012 and February 2014 CAMRA figures show that Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Co-op opened 162 convenience stores in former pubs.

The latest changes to permitted development rights appear to be a direct response to this and remove the ability of pubs that are listed as assets of community value to convert to other uses without the need for planning permission.

This additional control is a move away from the stance taken by Planning Minister Nick Boles in January 2013 where he considered that pubs are not converted to supermarkets because of the planning system but because they are unviable.

Under the new rules to come into force on April 2015, permitted development rights will be removed for A4 uses listed as community assets and prior to taking advantage of permitted development rights, those wishing to convert a pub will be required to write to a local authority to confirm if the pub is listed as an asset of community value. If it is not, or no application to list the pub is subsequently received, the change of use must then be made within a year before a further formal request to establish if the pub is listed must be made.

Councils have 56 days to respond to a request to check if a pub is listed as an ACV and if an application is made to list it, 56 days to consider this. If the application to list the pub as an ACV is successful, its permitted development rights are removed for 5 years.

So, are these changes going to halt the closure of pubs across the UK?

In short, no. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s and Co-op have approaching 5,000 convenience stores between them. Even over the two year period represented in the CAMRA sample, these 162 pubs converted to convenience stores represented only around 3% of these four operators’ total convenience stores portfolio. Although the number of 162 convenience stores opening in former pubs over this period seems high, this represents only a small proportion of the overall number of convenience stores opened by these operators over this period with Morrison’s alone opening in excess of 100 M Local convenience stores during this time. The majority of convenience stores are therefore not located in former pubs.

Furthermore, CAMRA advise that 2 of the 31 pubs closing each week are converted to convenience stores which only represents 6% of the total. The majority of pubs closing are therefore not converted to convenience stores.

Whilst the loss of many pubs and conversion to other uses will be significant blows to the communities within which they are located, some conversions will be hugely positive, bringing better access to fresh produce to a locality or revitalising an important building such has occurred in my local area at the Sainsbury’s Local in Withington Village in Manchester.

In my colleague Dan Brown’s blog of last year, it was suggested that the planning system may not be the answer to control the number of bookmakers on the high street. In my view the forthcoming changes to permitted development rights for pubs fall into the same category.

The changes may result in some of the 6% of pubs closing not now being converted to convenience stores but the number remaining open rather than closing in any event as a result of these changes is likely to be very small indeed. As Nick Boles’ suggested, it is only pubs that are not viable as pubs that are converted to convenience stores. Those that are viable, remain operational as pubs in the vast majority of cases. Those that are not viable will overwhelmingly still close regardless of these changes.

Whilst the legislation only applies to the permitted development rights of pubs listed as assets of community value, it appears that a pub can be listed at any point in the development process. This significantly increases uncertainty for those who are looking to convert former pubs into new productive uses. Although change of use applications can still be submitted to convert pubs into A1, A2 and A3 uses, it is unlikely that a local community would welcome such a change of use if they have sought to protect the pub as an asset of community value, whether the ongoing pub use is viable or not.

As a result, whilst the closure of pubs is an issue particularly close to my heart, I fear the forthcoming changes will result in the number of pubs being saved being significantly outweighed by the number of pubs listed as assets of community value that are now destined to remain vacant.


Published: 26/03/2015

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