A national scandal – we are losing too many pubs on the basis of a lie

Newspapers often carry stories of the latest figure on pub closures. Each and every case will have its own circumstances, its own history, its own sad tale of why it has closed.

Yet one thing that isn’t covered and seems little understood is that many of the pubs closing are not “unviable” as is often claimed – or accepted.  Ministers and Councils (and often the media) are turning a blind eye to the fact that many of the pubs closed are not only valued and wanted, but very clearly “viable” and could succeed under different ownership and a different business model.

What makes this a national scandal, is that many of these pubs are clearly viable, indeed in many cases actually profitable when closed. Pubs that are actively and positively contributing to the local economy, employing people and paying rates and taxes. All of that is lost as well as history, sometimes going back years even centuries, all to placate shareholders and company bosses who have never even visited the pub that has served the community for so long.

Worst of all, many of these pubs are being closed on the basis of a lie, a lie peddled by anyone it suits – aggressive developers who see the opportunity to use it to cram in flats or town houses where a pub has long stood, supermarkets who use absurd permitted development rights to impose stores on community without any consultation, and worst of all, peddled by pub owning companies when it suits them to cash in and sell off pubs with no consideration for the local community the pub serves. It is a lie accepted by too many Ministers and council planning departments and plans panels. It is a lie that is destroying history and heritage and undermining community spirit and cohesion.

Another part of the lie is that the only pubs closing are unremarkable pubs, with little historic value. Once again this is not the case and pubs that have served for years, sometimes hundreds of years, are being lost for ever. The Summercross in my own constituency, the only pub of that name in the country, was given planning permission to be a care home despite Leeds City Council having figures proving the pub was trading profitably. The 15th century Chequer Inn in Ash, Kent, was the last proper pub in the village. It was churned by Punch and sold for a song (£188K) to a developer who wanted to turn it into a private house and currently stands empty. We are losing our history, our heritage and part of who we are as a nation.

The flawed planning system is actually facilitating this greedy asset stripping and the Department for Communities and Local Government are covering their eyes and pretending it isn’t happening, it is and it is happening on their watch – and if they refuse to address this, they are complicit in the loss of each and every valued, profitable pub against the wishes of a let-down community.

Up and down the country, communities are up in arms at the fact that their local pub has been or is going to be turned into a supermarket and that they do not even have the right to object to the Council. Constituents who approach their councillors or MP for support in saving their beloved local are incredulous when told that there is nothing they can do about it, that the planning system allows Tesco, the Co-op, Sainsbury’s et al the right to close and convert their pub. Often there is the ridiculous situation where Tesco rip out a pub and replace it with a Tesco Express, without needing planning permission – yet then have to apply for planning permission for some signage! This is the sort of thing that brings the planning system into disrepute. Whilst there is carte blanche to turn pubs in a supermarket whether people want one or not, you can’t then turn a shop back into a pub, without needing to get planning permission! Even more bizarrely, the planning system – and therefore the Government – values casinos, launderettes and nightclubs more than pubs. Hardly the position of a “pro-pub Government”.

Yet even where planning permission is required, indebted pub companies collude with developers to claim that the pub “can’t trade profitably” or is “unviable” and weak planning authorities go along with it and rubber stamp decisions that are so obviously cynical attempts to cash it with a windfall for the pubco to placate shareholders and a boost for developer profits. This situation is now especially serious, with the value of pubs and their carparks and gardens being so much higher as potential development sites, that predatory purchasing (and the dishonest presentation of ‘viability’ that goes with it) that pubs are facing an existential threat in some areas, particularly in parts of London and the south east.

These absurd permitted development rights are being used as a way to offload pub sites to prop up debt ridden companies and are being abused by supermarket chains who indulge in ‘predatory purchasing’ precisely because of these loopholes and the fact that they can impose a store on a community without any objections from residents or shopkeepers.

Indeed the reason behind so much of the loss of Britain’s pub heritage is of the catastrophic leased tied pubco model which has led to their mass asset stripping. Whilst the original pubco bosses who speculated and borrowed against artificial values have long since walked away with their personal fortunes, the amount of debt left from this scam is leading to sale and closures of pubs up and down the country as pubcos do deals with supermarkets and developers. As well as pulling the wool over the eyes of councils when it comes to seeking permission (where they even need to) they also claim that they have no choice, as their first duty is to their shareholders. So we have the absurd but awful reality that the interests of those who invested in what was essentially a scam, based on inflated property prices and the protection racket of pubco beer pricing, are now being put ahead of the interests of local communities, of hardworking publicans of that local economy.

The ongoing asset stripping by these hugely indebted property companies and the current planning system regarding pubs has itself led to the creation of a scam and pubco debt has given rise to a new wave of vultures circling the county looking to swoop anywhere they can get their hands on a community pub. This list is topped by New River Retail, who now own hundreds of pubs (their name suggests that their purchase of pubs isn’t entirely benign!) and others like Hawthorn, LT Management, Mendoza, Golfrate, all companies set up to act as vehicles for asset stripping neglected pubco pubs whilst planning authorities, councillors and communities can do little to resist.

So the fact is that pubs – including profitable and popular pubs – are being closed and lost forever as a direct result of current Department for Communities and Local Government policy. The loss of a pub is the end of a business that contributes proportionately more to the local economy than supermarkets do, that employs people, notably young people, and that serves the local community in a way no other business does or can.  Once a pub is a block of flats, the developer and pubco may have made a nice sum, but the business that could trade and contribute for years to come has gone, with no income to the local economy, no jobs for people

So why does the Government, a Government that claims to support both business and localism, continue to refuse to deal with the reality of what is happening and reform the planning system to protect pubs, businesses, jobs and community spirit? At the heart of this blind eye is blind ideology, the belief amongst the more out of touch Tory Ministers that what is needed in more and more “deregulation” in the planning system. Yet this mantra not only takes away the right of local residents to have a say over key changes in their area, it also is giving a green light to all those who are targeting pubs as ways for them to make some money, regardless of the loss of a viable business and jobs and regardless of the loss to the community. As long as this remains the case with pubs, the supposed commitment to ‘localism’ is tokenistic, as many people including Conservative councillors have found to their cost as their valued pubs are lost to greedy predators.

Of course, DCLG will claim they are pro pub due to the ‘Asset of Community Value’ scheme and say that there are more pubs listed as ACVs than anything else. Yet whilst this limited measure can be some help in at least delaying developers or supermarkets closing a pub, it is doing virtually nothing to stem this dangerous attack on our pub heritage.

Ministers claim that if people value their pub, they should list it and yet, with thousands of pubs in this country both ‘valued’ and clearly viable, to stop the wholesale destruction of pubs currently going on, it would need communities to list most if not all of their local pubs, which as well as being unrealistic would also cost local authorities millions of pounds at a time of huge financial constraints. In truth, this approach is merely the Government passing the buck for something and using ACVs as a fig leaf to cover up their disgraceful refusal to give pubs basic protection in the planning system.  ACVs status is actually weak and there are pubs that have (or had) this status that were still shut, converted and demolished and others that sit rotting with this status on, with the owners cynically say that a derelict pub is no asset to any community.

Where the Government and the ACV scheme is also wrongly directed is that the saviour of manty pubs up and down the country is not communities, and aside from the minority of cases where a community may want to or be able to take on a pub, the saviour is actually local entrepreneurs, small expanding pub companies and thriving microbreweries, who are taking on a few pubs to showcase their exciting beer.

So let’s be clear ACV’s will not and cannot save pubs against the threat they are currently facing and pretending otherwise is to allow the asset stripping and predatory purchasing of our pub heritage to continue. To really save profitable pubs,  we need is the Government to make pubs ‘sui generis’ in the planning system, so without any permitted development rights, which at least means that planning permission will be required to turn pubs into flats or supermarkets.

However if Ministers really care about the pub, they need to introduce reform that will stop the indebted and amoral pubcos and their shareholders, predatory supermarkets and developers in their tracks. The solution is actually a surprisingly simple one – which is that no pub should be allowed to be given change of use of demolished unless it has been publicly marketed for 6 months at the market value as a pub (not as a development opportunity). If no local entrepreneur, microbrewery, pub company or community group wants to buy and take on the pub, then it can and should be granted permission to close and be something else. For only when this has been tested, can we say it is an unwanted, unviable pub.

This could be done by replacing ACVs for pubs with a more meaningful Pub of Community Value (PCV) status which does precisely that – or to pursue a definition of a pub, as opposed to bars and other licensed premises and have these associated terms on change of use. Either way, it would finally send a message out that it is wrong – economically and morally – to be closing profitable, popular pubs, ending a business and putting people out of work, simply to make a quick buck.  Our communities deserve better.

So Ministers must stop hiding behind the very limited Asset of Community Value scheme, must stop accepting or worse still peddling the lie that it is only ‘unviable’ pubs that are being closed and they must stop passing the buck. They – and only they – can take simple, essential measures to give pubs protection against the deliberate targeting and closure of viable, profitable, valued pubs. If they don’t, then their claims to be pro-pub will be just more hot air.

It was, perhaps ironically, a Frenchman who wrote the great lines about the threats faced our pubs just over 100 years ago. In This and That (1912) Hilaire Belloc wrote those famous words:

“From the towns all Inns have been driven: from the villages most…. Change your hearts or you will lose your Inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”.

For England, we could of course add the other ‘home nations’ and with so many village pubs having gone, it is now urban and suburban pubs that are closing in greatest number (often because they offer the easiest development opportunity or the chance to impose a supermarket on a community).

Hilaire Belloc was also a Liberal MP, perhaps he too raised this in Parliament, but he could scarcely have imagined and would have been appalled at the way vested corporate interests are colluding and conspiring to deliberately close profitable pubs and rob communities of them. So it is also somewhat ironic that a Government that likes to claim to be patriotic is standing by as Britain’s pub heritage is lost as unprincipled developers, pubcos and supermarkets cash in.

Unless they act, it is not just pubs that Ministers are letting down, it is our nation. So they must now change their hearts and quickly before we lose any more of it.