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It was the dour Scots actor John Laurie – when reprising his famous character Private Frazer in Dad’s Army – who frequently exhorted: “We’re doomed, we’re all doomed!” Of course, in the 80 episodes of the wartime-themed TV sitcom, his pessimism never did prove to be founded. And one suspects the same will ultimately be said about the much predicted demise of the British pub long after Covid has been relegated from the news headlines, but we can’t afford to take this as read. There are already people and organisations seeking to create a narrative that hundreds – if not thousands – of pubs are doomed to close for good following the pandemic. So, what should we – as CAMRA members – do about it?
Firstly, we need to question the default assumption that 'Covid = permanent pub closures', and to underline this we must resist the urge to repeat the misleading mantra of 'Covid means it’s inevitable a pub will close'. That is, unless we want to help that message become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who only see the nation’s pubs as development opportunities, will see Covid as a golden opportunity. They will doubtless be replacing their decades-old cliches of drinking and driving and the smoking ban with Covid to justify to planners the conversion or demolition of a pub, irrespective of its trading history or community value. Now more than ever, in the fifty years of CAMRA’s existence, we must face up to this threat, otherwise there is a very real danger we will see the unnecessary loss of many cherished pubs.
It is a sad, but an inevitable fact, that a number of pub businesses will have ceased trading during the pandemic. However, this does NOT automatically mean that a pub is destined to be closed permanently. Many of the licensees who have left their pubs will have been operators of well-run pubs - some of whom will have been good friends of CAMRA. They are going to be greatly missed. However, all is not lost as there are still plenty of potential operators looking to take on pubs. Don’t take my word for it. Mr John Williams, the chairman of national pub-selling agents Sidney Phillips, has some good news for us here, when he said in March this year: “We have been bowled over by the number of [pub purchase] enquiries since the first lockdown in March 2020. These have exceeded all expectations and have lead to an encouraging number of freehold sales and the grant of new leases over the past twelve months. I think many people are re-evaluating their lives and are considering going down the route of self-employment, and pubs are a relatively low-cost way of becoming self-employed.” Therefore, it is vital that we ensure these potential new pub-owners are afforded the chance to buy that closed pub, especially as the planners may not know about this important trend. So, how do we help to make this happen?
It doesn’t need to take a lot of effort to make a big difference. Thankfully, to convert a pub into something else (or to demolish it) always requires planning permission. But, before your eyes glaze over on reading the word ‘planning’, it is important to realise one doesn’t need to have a Diploma in Town & Country planning to be able to ask a few surprisingly straightforward questions of the planners when a pub is facing a hostile planning application. Years of hard work by CAMRA means pubs now enjoy a high degree of protection in planning terms. What CAMRA members need to do is carefully remind the planners of these protections. Let’s not leave them to only hear the voices that say all pubs are doomed…
It is vital to understand that even if a pub is closed and has no licence, the building is still a pub in planning terms. And to get the necessary planning permission, a case needs to be made by the applicant as to why it isn’t financially viable and is no longer needed. Significantly, there is an expectation raised in the planning regulations that efforts should be made by a pub-owner to sell a pub as a pub business first before consideration is given to an alternative use or development. This means a pub needs to have been advertised on the licensed property market for a reasonable period of time at a price commensurate with its value as a pub business (to only have offered the pub for lease or rent does not count for this purpose). This is called ‘market testing’, and is a clear measure of the demand for the pub. If you only ask the planners one question when a pub is subject to a hostile planning application, it should be: Has the pub been marketed for sale, and at a realistic price? If it hasn’t, then how can it be proven that it’s no longer viable?
It can seem quite intimidating getting involved in the arcane complexities of planning, but it really doesn’t need to be at all complicated. If you’re in a CAMRA branch that up to now, for the very best of reasons, has not been in a position to contest hostile planning applications appertaining to pubs, then now really is the time to step up to the bar. But it doesn’t need to involve hours of work – if nothing else, just ask the planners that one simple question. But, it’s even better if you can get a few of the locals to ask the same question. It really can be that straightforward.
However, if you feel compelled to make other arguments to the planners in favour of retaining a valued pub (and I hope you will), then the good news is that help is there in the shape of easy-to-understand resources at: camra.org.uk/saveyourlocal. Further, if you are desperate, or you believe you are being unreasonably coerced into supporting (or not objecting to) a planning application that doesn’t feel right, or just want some support, then you can contact the CAMRA Campaigns Team on firstname.lastname@example.org – they can link you up with experienced volunteers who can provide advice on planning and general pub-saving issues.
Many CAMRA branches (and individual members) have an excellent track record for making sound arguments to council planners for saving pubs, and there are very good reasons for this: we understand the value of pubs to the communities they serve, and more often than not we can boast an encyclopaedic knowledge of the pubs in our local area. Do not underestimate the value and power of this knowledge. These are advantages that property developers and their like will never have in their favour. If we choose not to share this knowledge with the planners by objecting to an unwanted planning application, then we’re in very real danger of selling ourselves short and seeing pubs close that don’t need to. With our pubs facing their biggest existential threat in living memory, and in CAMRA’s fiftieth year, it’s now time for all of us to stand up for pubs. Unlike Private Frazer, let’s not blindly swallow the line that we’re all doomed!