Pubs Matter is the new CAMRA campaign which is hoped, if successful, will slow down the rate of pub closures. The thinking behind the campaign is that currently those pubs which usually have an A4 planning class use can be converted into categories A1 (shops), A2 (financial and professional services), A3 (restaurants and cafes) or B1 (Business) without the need for planning permission. They can also be demolished and then of course the land can be used for anything for which planning permission is granted. It is this loophole (if loophole is the right word) that CAMRA wish to change by making it a law that planning permission is always required before a pub is demolished or converted into another use. The thinking behind this is of course that pubs should be treated as a special case because of their importance to the community and what we don't want of course is to make it more difficult for shops to be converted into pubs in the way we are currently seeing all over the country with the boom in micropubs.
The closure of pubs in recent years is highlighted in my current village (and surrounding villages). I moved from Yapton in 2006 and the village had four pubs. Two were places I would never have dared set foot in, one was a popular family pub with a decent beer selection and good food and the fourth one was my local and a former winner of the local regional CAMRA group pub of the year. Last month I moved back to Yapton and the latter is the only pub that remains so would this law change have made any difference? Below we have the former Shoulder of Mutton and Cucumbers. This was converted into a couple of residential dwellings called 'Shoulders' and 'Cucumber Cottage'. This would have required planning permission and the outcome would have been the same.
The second pub to disappear was Enterprise-owned The Lamb. This was a thriving village local until a change of landlord occurred. Basically the more popular it became the higher the rent went until the tenant could no longer run a profitable business so he went elsewhere. Since then no incumbent has managed to make it pay and planning permission was granted for it to be demolished and houses will be built on the somewhat large plot.
The final pub to close was the Olive Branch. This pub is a total eyesore now as can be seen below although when it was open it didn't look much better as the letters in the pub name had begun to disappear long before the closure! This was up for sale at a reasonable price of £325,000 for the freehold. The estate agents did however make it clear in their brochure that the site was also ideal for 'redevelopment'. It was up for sale for quite some time and it has since been purchased by a development company. Three pubs gone and thankfully my former local is the sole survivor. I don't think this new CAMRA campaign would have made any difference to the fate of the others. However, now I move on to my surrounding villages.
Last week the local newspaper, the Bognor Regis Observer, ran a two page article with the headline 'Residents alarmed by number of community pubs closing down'. The article highlighted three recent closures and in all cases supermarkets have moved in. This has been going on for quite some time though in this area and we have seen many pubs converted into mini supermarkets in the past few years. It is this kind of activity though which is primarily behind this CAMRA campaign. The problem CAMRA will have though is whether the members of CAMRA themselves actually care much for the type of pubs that are closing. I don't think I have personally set foot in any of the pubs that have closed down in recent years and have subsequently been converted into convenience stores and I am someone who does like to get out and visit different pubs as often as possible. The active members of our branch will probably fight against the closure of a favourite pub but quite frankly there are many pubs they will do their best to avoid. There are many pubs in our area that some members will not go in for various reasons. The main reason is always the beer choice and/or the beer quality. The surliness of the owner is also mentioned from time to time and anything owned by Hall & Woodhouse or Greene King is a big no-no. For this reason our Whatpub completion rate** when I was appointed pubs officer for our area was pitifully low. You can't blame the members though for wanting to spend their money on good beer and in places that are a pleasure to frequent.
The pubs that are targeted in this area by the major supermarkets are large sites with car parking and the bottom line is that these pubs are generally not popular. If you were just selling the business then the price would have to be low because they are probably losing money. The only asset the business has is the land it sits on and this is what makes it valuable. Perhaps we should be talking to these companies to encourage them to retain part of the building as a pub or even as a micropub so the community still has a focus but one which could be run profitably. At the end of the day all pubs are just one change of owner away from potential closure because there are far too many poor publicans out there. Even successful pubs can fall into the wrong hands when a successful publican sells up and moves on or retires.
So, if the Pubs Matter campaign is successful and we see a change in the law will this see a decline in the number of pub closures? I would like to think it will but I think you are more likely to see areas blighted with boarded up buildings that will eventually be redeveloped anyway. Saving a pub from being changed into a convenience store does not mean a buyer will come along who will be able to run it successfully as a pub. I think the pub landscape will always be shrinking due to changing demographics. The number of pubs is falling because less people are visiting them and with land and property prices constantly rising it means the larger establishments are simply worth far more as housing or as convenience stores. To the large pub-owning property companies it means their debts can be reduced by increasing rents to the point where pubs can no longer be profitable as pubs and so the site can then be redeveloped. It should not stop CAMRA fighting for pubs though but I'm not sure this particular campaign will make much difference. I think we need to address what makes these businesses unprofitable in the first place. High rents, high business rates, high overheads, poor publicans, poor food, poor beer choice can all play a part. Use them or lose them is often quoted but while there are large numbers of pubs that are simply too poor for regular pubgoers to use you will continue to see a loss because there simply aren't enough people out there willing to take on these failing pubs.
I've probably raised a number of points here without giving answers to any of them but I would like to know what other people think. However, there will be further posts from me about some of the points raised here over time because I care very much about pubs and it would be good to know what others see as the problems affecting pubs in all parts of the country. In the meantime I will continue to visit pubs as often as I can and I recommend you all do the same because there is no better place in which to relax and enjoy a pint.
** The CAMRA pub guide has listings for all pubs. The national aim is to get a comprehensive survey of each pub and in our area this figure was at 37% at the beginning of this year. This is way below the national average but I have managed to get the figure up to nearly 50% now.