Iris Murdoch once wrote of pubs as ‘universal places, like churches, hallowed meeting places of mankind’. This leads you to two inevitable conclusions: 1) she had a lovely turn of phrase and fully deserved that DBE, and 2) she had clearly never been to the Wetherspoons in Leeds city centre on a Friday night.
Like churches, however, pubs are facing a period of great challenge: the British pub is battling with diversifying consumer trends. The latest figures show that pub closures have slowed in 2012, but are still occurring at a rate of 18 a week, leading the Chief Executive of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) to remark earlier this year that the future of Britain’s valued community pubs is ‘in jeopardy’.
Despite this, the emotion people have for community institutions like pubs sets them apart as a distinct political issue for local authorities. And recent planning policy suggests this is a concern shared by central government. The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) includes new responsibilities for local authorities to promote local pubs. According to the framework, planning policies and decisions should:
- plan positively for the provision and use of shared space, community facilities (such as local shops, meeting places, sports venues, cultural buildings, public houses and places of worship) and other local services to enhance the sustainability of communities and residential environments; and
- guard against the unnecessary loss of valued facilities and services, particularly where this would reduce the community’s ability to meet its day-to-day needs. (NPPF, March 2012)
The public house has never been specifically identified in a document like this before, so its inclusion is significant. The Localism Act too raises similar issues. The new Community Right to Buy makes it possible for communities to list local pubs as assets of community value, and to bid for them should they come up for sale.
There is certainly a strong argument to be made for the social and economic value of the community pub. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)’s recent report Pubs and Places: the social value of community pubs, placed the wider social value of a sample of community pubs at between £20,000 and £120,000 per pub. It noted that pubs inject an average of £80,000 into their local economy each year, besides their cultural and practical community value.
With this in mind, some local authorities have already gone out of their way to safeguard the future of their local pubs. Cambridge City Council and the London Borough of Islington, for example, have both established their own ‘pub protection policies’ to make it more difficult for planning loopholes to be exploited to turn pubs into housing, or betting agencies.
Of course this won’t be a priority for all councils. Pubs have the potential to exclude as well as include, and councils will need to weigh their decisions against the views of their community. Nevertheless, if councils want to protect the pub, they now have the powers to do so. We hope those authorities that plan to use them will get in touch to share their work with us.
For more information about CAMRA’s community pubs campaign, please go to http://www.camra.org.uk/nppf.