Much-loved locals will be lost unless the city takes a stand against greedy pubcos and land-grab supermarkets, says Nick Love
Just recently York has got a taste of an insidious phenomenon that is happening throughout the UK. It was probably inevitable given the density of public houses, but unwelcome all the same.
Tesco concluded a deal for The Corner House, Burton Stone Lane with Marstons – one of the large pubcos (pub companies) to turn it into a supermarket without, seemingly, much concern amongst the local community.
Yet less than a mile away the same intentions by Tesco have met with a huge outpouring of fury and intent that The Punch Bowl, Lowther Street should not meekly succumb to being a footnote in the profit and loss statement of a pubco such as Enterprise that sees pubs as disposable assets rather than community assets.
Many communities throughout the country are experiencing the loss of pubs, which are still closing at 30 per week.
Some, it can be argued, were on borrowed time anyway: unprofitable, unloved and much better serving the community under another guise.
Many were not though.
Many were much loved but suffered from chronic underinvestment by pub companies that squeeze so much profit out of their pubs that they force them into poverty along with their licensees.
By forcing over-inflated rents and prices for beer up to 70 per cent above those available on the free market, they almost ensure that many places become unsustainable: a self-perpetuating cycle of failure.
Little wonder that a CAMRA survey showed that 57 per cent of tied publicans earn less than £10,000 per annum.
A special place
The Punch Bowl is not unprofitable and certainly not unloved judging by the 1,200 people that have signed the petition against its closure.
It is on an upward curve and benefitting from the introduction of a new popular licensee who is restoring its fortunes and bringing custom back in from not just the surrounding Groves area but up to three miles away.
The Punch Bowl for instance is the last pub on the Haxby Road before the ring road!
People not au fait with the pub itself often have a mistakenly negative view of it – born out of ignorance of the facts rather than a prejudice.
You only have to spend half an hour with the regulars of The Punch Bowl to see what it means to them – some who have been going in for over 30 years.
They speak powerfully of the place it has in their lives. Four walls in which they feel safe and a sense of belonging. For some it is the only company they have all day; for some a weekly treat, a single excursion from their care home.
Many think that pub preservation is just for timbered gems in chocolate box villages or historically important hostelries that can tell tales from floorboards that were creaking to the footsteps of soldiers in the English Civil War.
To believe this is to misinterpret the importance of the pub as an entity for community interaction. The architectural fabric of a building becomes secondary in importance if that space still engenders discourse and bonhomie.
How can another off licence help?
What pub companies and supermarket chains also don’t see from their remote head offices is the very real damage the change to the delicate ecosystem of an area their decisions can have – both economically and socially.
How can another off-licence be justified in The Groves when there are already six existing in a radius of just 0.4 miles? The area is the mental health hub of York with drug and alcohol rehabilitation at its heart.
Another off licence selling discounted alcohol? Really? What effect will aggressive pricing have on the future of independently run grocers, takeaways, restaurants and sandwich shops, all of which serve the area?
The fundamental problem lies with current planning law: pubs can be demolished or converted into several other uses including supermarkets and estate agents without requiring planning permission.
Campaign groups such as CAMRA and local communities are fighting against this “loophole” and planners become vexed at this term saying the law is the law.
Yet the Oxford Dictionary defines a loophole as “an inadequacy in the law” – which is exactly what this is.
Pub companies have deep pockets for those who will enhance their cause and legal counsel falls under this auspice. They are exploiting “an inadequacy in the law” for which it was not originally intended.
Pubs are being sold off to increase pubco profits or to reduce crippling debts. The result is that local residents and patrons of pubs are not given any say in the future of their locals.
They have the will of pubcos and willing accomplices like Tesco imposed on them.
The change of use from a pub to a supermarket should be as the result of a positive choice of local residents not a wrongly prescribed panacea for a self-inflicted malady.
Taking a stand
York CAMRA and local residents are working with local York ruling councillors and planning officers in an effort to try and work out a solution.
We have applied for an immediate Article 4 direction: a law granted by elected councillor’s discretionary powers which would protect the pub by requiring planning permission before Tesco could convert The Punch Bowl into a supermarket.
This has been applied successfully elsewhere in the UK, but sits uneasily with council officers in York who have recommended refusal.
York needs to replicate other local authorities who are enshrining protection of pubs into their Local Plan
To be fair to them they have agreed to discuss this further with interested parties and we are still hopeful that an accommodation can be reached. If not, then the matter is placed before the ruling Cabinet again – at which point they will have to make a decisive vote on the matter.
Either way – Punch Bowl campaigners and York CAMRA will be pressing for an immediate Article 4 direction.
Nationally a CAMRA campaign to persuade the Government to change the law has just been launched called Pubs Matter. Consumers are being asked to sign the e-petition and lobby their MP.
With a simple amendment to the General Permitted Development Order 1995, any demolition or change of use involving the loss of a pub would require planning permission.
Longer term, York needs to consider replicating other local authorities, such as Wandsworth, who are taking the matter of pub closures and conversions so seriously that they are incorporating ground-breaking protection into their Local Plan – which then can be enshrined in law.
The effect would be to remove permitted development rights from every pub of heritage or community value, so changes to these buildings and the way they are used would need permission from the council.
British inns, taverns and alehouses have a lineage dating back to medieval times. They have survived natural disasters, famines, pestilence and wars. We are now their custodians and history won’t judge us kindly if we don’t protect and nurture them for future generations.