May 2017

No Magic Bullet

Designating a pub as an Asset of Community Value is no guarantee of its survival

UNDER the Localism Act of 2011, the government made provision for land or buildings to be designated as Assets of Community Value, meaning that, if there was a proposal to sell them, they would enjoy a six-month waiting period to allow a local community to either make a bid itself or find an alternative buyer. Not surprisingly, this has since been extended to many pubs, including a number in this area.

However, it seems to be viewed by some as a magic bullet to save threatened pubs, whereas in reality all it can do is to give them a stay of execution. Even if a local community is able to make a bid, there is no requirement for the seller to accept it. And, while there have been a number of cases of successful community bids being made for smaller locals, it’s unrealistic to expect this to happen for bigger and more expensive pubs in rural locations or city centres.

Locally, we have recently lost two large Hydes’ estate pubs, the High Grove in Gatley and the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme, both of which have been sold for residential development. An ACV listing had been obtained for the High Grove, but not the Ryecroft, but at the end of the day this did not affect its fate. It’s doubtful whether a community group could have raised the £500,000 asking price, let alone run it profitably where Hydes had failed. And the question must be asked why, if it was so valued by the local community, they hadn’t previously used it more.

To some extent, ACV status is being used as a substitute for protecting pubs under the planning system. Under current planning law, there is what might be regarded as a loophole or anomaly whereby a pub can be converted to retail or office use without needing planning permission, although it is needed for residential conversion. There’s a good case for changing this, although surely a time limit would be needed, as it would deter people from converting shops to bars if they needed planning permission to convert them back again a couple of years later if things didn’t work out.

However, while this would ensure that any conversions from pub use were done in the open, in practice it wouldn’t really save more than a handful of pubs. All of those in this area that have been converted to supermarkets had been closed for some years previously. At the end of the day, you can’t force people to run businesses if they don’t want to, and it could all too easily lead to a staring match between pub owners and councils, with pubs left derelict for an extended period of time. And many pubs sit on a substantial patch of land which is potentially very valuable for redevelopment. Even if somehow you were able to require a pub to be sold for its value as a going concern, if the new owners couldn’t make a go of it either, who would stand to benefit from the development value at the end of the day?

Some campaigners against pub closures seem blind to the fact that the demand for pubs has dramatically declined, making it inevitable that many will become unviable. Since 1997, the total amount of beer sold in pubs has more than halved. But it is now easier to get a licence for existing premises than it ever has been, and this has resulted in a growing wave of openings of new bars and micropubs, including some in suburban shopping parades. Perhaps something smaller and more intimate would be a better option for local communities than the archetypal “beached whale” estate pub.