Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 2015
It seems wrong that established pubs can be converted into shops without planning permission
IMAGINE you live in a suburb of a major town, and have a local pub, a big free-standing building dating from the Thirties or Fifties, on a spacious site with a large car park. Over the years, it’s gone through various brands and formats, none of which really seem to have been successful. To be honest, you rarely go in it, as the beer’s not much good and it only seems to be busy when the football’s on, but you still think of it as a key feature in the local community.
One day, you see work starting on it and think that maybe at last they’ll be giving it a thorough makeover and allowing it to realise its potential. But when the fencing comes down you are shocked to see a gleaming new Tesco Express inhabiting the old pub building. “How on earth did that happen?” you wonder. “We weren’t consulted – nobody told us a thing.” It’s entirely lawful and above board, though, and something that has happened in hundreds of places over the past ten or fifteen years.
It is a feature – many would say a loophole – of the planning system that this can be done without needing planning permission. Pubs fall into Use Class A4 “Drinking establishments” and can be turned into A3 “Restaurants”, A2 “Financial and professional services” and A1 “Shops”. The thinking behind this is that permission shouldn’t be needed to convert premises to uses that are likely to have less adverse impact on the neighbourhood.
However, many pubs are seen as valuable community hubs, and people are understandably concerned if they are lost without any consultation or prior warning. Even if in the end the building turned out to have no future as a pub, if planning permission was needed, then at least there would have been the opportunity for other pub operators and community groups to step in.
It has to be recognised, though, that planning can only stop things happening – it cannot keep businesses in operation that nobody considers commercially viable. And the best way for a community to have a say in the future of its local pub is to actually use it in the first place. All too often, the first to complain are those who haven’t crossed the threshold for years.
In the long term, the viability of the pub trade will be ensured by encouraging new entrants into the market
THERE’S ANOTHER reason why strict planning controls might not be a good idea for pubs. The 2003 Licensing Act made it easier to open new licensed premises by removing the requirement to demonstrate “need”. This has led to a remarkable growth in small new bars, many of which, as we have seen in Chorlton and increasingly in West Didsbury and the Heatons, make a real effort on the beer front.
They may not be traditional pubs, but they show that the opportunities are there for new entrants to come in and meet a demand that the old pubs, which were often just too big and in the wrong place, didn’t satisfy. Their small size means that overheads are modest, and the planning system makes it easy to turn them back into shops if the venture fails to take off. If even the smallest bar had planning protection from day one, then we would have a lot fewer small bars.
There’s a strong case for extending planning protection to well-established, popular pubs to ensure they aren’t arbitrarily converted to shops without consultation. But, unless it is limited according to one or more of length of time in operation, size, and whether purpose-built rather than a conversion, the effect will be to deter people from opening new pubs and bars without necessarily doing much to keep the existing ones in business.