Saving Pubs Toolkit - Part 4

Planning battles

You’ve done your homework. You know all the background to your pub. You are an expert in its life history and evolution. You’ve researched the dark forces trying to destroy your local. You have formed a campaign team. You have your ACV status, or at the very least your nomination form is sitting with the Council. You may be a novice but you grasp all the salient features of our vastly complicated planning system. You have the Savings Pubs Toolkit to hand. Now is probably the most crucial phase of your campaign: the planning battle. Developers are allowed to destroy pubs by exploiting planning loopholes or by using planning professionals to convince the local planning authority that their scheme should be allowed to proceed. It is estimated that in up to four out of five cases, pub closures are largely unopposed! Is this because locals do not actually care or could it be because they have never been shown how to go about it?

Often when CAMRA or other similarly helpful bodies learn of embryonic pub campaigns, we are involved too late to have much of an impact. The initiative has already been lost. When those upset about the loss of their pub are asked ‘why were there only a handful of objections?’ we are usually told ‘we didn’t bother objecting because we didn’t think it would make any difference. Besides, we do not really know what to say’. That all ends NOW. Planning objections are, in the main, very easy things to submit. Furthermore, it is not necessary to write a chapter and verse essay, although it helps if one or two gifted amateurs can do that on your behalf. Essentially it boils down to a numbers game. The more objections from individual members of the community, the better it will be for you and the greater the chances of saving your pub.

When to object For some years we have lamented the so-called planning ‘loophole’ that allows pubs to be turned into shops and restaurants or demolished without permission. Thanks to the changes made to the ACV provisions in April 2015, this loophole is effectively closed. It is a requirement now for any owner wishing to exercise permitted development (PD) rights to enquire of the Council whether the pub has been nominated as an ACV, whereupon their PD rights are suspended for eight weeks. This is your opportunity to rapidly submit an ACV nomination, if you have not done so already. This move alone will bring all changes of use (and demolition) under planning control, and thus create the opportunity for the Council to exercise its judgement against policy, and most importantly, for all local voices to be heard. If you have your ear to the ground (refer to Part 1 of this Toolkit) you will have engineered a situation whereby your pub is protected in planning law. This is a strong position. When a planning application for some alternative use comes along, you need to mobilise your campaign, casting the net far and wide, and encourage as many objections as possible.

How to object The mechanics of objecting are straightforward. You can write to the planning officer at the town hall, email them, or fill out an online form on the Council’s website. The presence of a planning application should be communicated to immediate neighbours in writing, but this does not always work! In addition the Council should advertise planning applications via a site notice on or very close to the pub, and in their weekly paper or other local newspaper. Furthermore, all planning applications are listed on their website but trawling the list is a tedious task. Once validated, every application must undergo a statutory consultation, which varies between three and eight weeks. Councils aim to make a decision after roughly eight weeks, depending on significance and profile of the proposal, and their workload. Decisions that take longer, without good reason, are at risk of appeal on the grounds of non-determination. People are often surprised by the relatively narrow window for objection and so it is important to waste no time. Having said that, until the decision has been formally issued, or voted on by committee where applicable, objections will still be accepted even if the published deadline has passed. Online forms are sometimes limited to 2,000 words, which will be plenty for most people but if you have lots to say in protest, and want to include additional documents like pictures or plans, it is better to email the officer directly. You can find the case officer’s contact details on the Council planning website by searching for the application you are interested in. Beware that often developers will deliberately not use the name of the pub. Instead of searching for Royal Oak or Red Lion, you should use the street address and postcode. www.whatpub.com can help you.

How Councils decide applications Part 3 of this Toolkit explained the planning system in some detail. You will recall that around 98% of planning applications are decided by delegated officer decision. This is where the executive of the Council vests its power and responsibility in its professional employees to examine each application on its merits, judge the proposal against adopted policies in the local and national plans, make a judgement as to whether it is acceptable, write a report justifying and explaining their decision, and formally issue the planning consent, along with any relevant conditions. For schemes which are particularly high profile, contentious, or which attract a high volume of neighbour objections (upwards of 15 but some Councils need considerably more), the decision will be deferred to the planning sub-committee. This is a committee of elected Councillors, with a chair chosen by the Council each year, who will read the application and the officer report in detail, then listen to any objectors in person who have registered to speak, as well as hearing from the applicant or their agent. After any questions or clarifications, the committee will vote on the proposal. Owing to the workload of committees and the large number of applications, only a minority are decided in this way.

Elected Councillors, known as members, may ‘call in’ an application by insisting that the committee hears the arguments in full and votes on it. Furthermore, officers will occasionally ask the committee to ‘rubber stamp’ their decision by asking for a brief discussion and vote, to ensure that the Council is on solid, auditable ground, irrespective of the number of objections. It is important to note that, if planning officers are minded to refuse anyway, then whilst objections are still important, the scheme will not go to committee. It will simply be rejected, with reasons communicated to the applicant. If officers are minded to grant consent, then objections are crucial. Only the planning sub-committee can save your pub under such circumstances and it will be down to your campaign to muster considerable passionate objection, as well as fielding your best spokesman to register to speak at the Council meeting at which the scheme will be heard. Objectors are usually only permitted five minutes so it is not wise to take a delegation, but it is a good idea to have a well behaved supporters club out in force to pack out the public gallery. Elected politicians need to feel the power of their democratic mandate, particularly when their constituents want them to overrule their respected experts.

Contents of an objection Do not be put off or deterred by the apparent blindingly good submissions that accompany many applications. Bear in mind these are written by experienced professionals, and they are mostly full of bluff and spin, with the negative points glossed over and the benefits of the scheme (e.g. ‘much needed housing’) substantially overstated. Planners are used to reading this and they know how to read between the lines, or at least we trust they do! The planning system is supposed to be transparent, fair and accessible to ordinary people. It is not perfect but all voices will be heard. The only criterion to bear in mind is that you must make comments that are material. You must object on legitimate planning grounds. For example, “As a regular user of this pub for many years, I urge the Council to recognise the community and social value that it brings to the community and to resist its unnecessary loss” is a good material objection. On the other hand, “this is the only pub within walking distance that serves Dark Star Hophead and it is normally in good nick” is irrelevant and immaterial as the planning system (sadly) is not there to safeguard the availability of cask ale or to distinguish between different average beer scores.

Pubs fall into planning use class A4. The planning system makes efforts to protect the A4 use class. Full stop. It will not recognise good pubs and bad pubs, but it can pay heed to the nuances between a ‘community pub’, for which there is not yet a universally agreed definition, and a town centre bar that caters mainly for tourists or commuters. Of course, those of us in the revolutionary wing of CAMRA would argue that ALL pubs are capable of providing community value, to differing extents. After all, commuters and bar staff getting together under the same roof every Friday is a community in itself, is it not?

Objections can be as long or as short as you like. A few lines in your own hand are all that is required. You are trying, as a campaign, to build enough objections such that (a) you persuade the officers that this should be rejected or (b) you persuade them that, although they may disagree with you, the decision ought to be made by committee. This then gives you the final opportunity to save the pub, through impassioned plea to your elected decision makers. We cannot stress enough that no amount of planning objections constitutes too many. Keep canvassing and campaigning right up to that deadline, and even beyond. Knock on doors, visit neighbouring pubs, use your social media channels, put samples on your campaign website, if the pub is still open, put some posters up and leave details behind the bar on where and how to find help. These few weeks are the most crucial time in your entire campaign. You have to fill the Council’s mailbag!

Grounds to object All pubs are recognised under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), paragraphs 69 and 70 (see Part 3 of this Toolkit). You can point out to officers that the loss of a London pub is contrary to planning policy as outlined in the NPPF at Paras 69 and 70, the London Plan 2011 at sections 3.1B, 3.16, 4.8, 4.48A, and 7.1. You then need to look up the detail of any local pub protection policy, if one exists. This will be found in the policy section of your Council website, or contact your local CAMRA branch chairman if you are unsure. This part is the same for all pubs, the chief ground being that the unnecessary loss of valued pubs should be resisted.

Next, you will have an ACV registration, or you will have nominated your pub and the ACV will be under consideration. This is a material planning consideration under the non-statutory advice note, signed by the (then) Communities Minister, the Rt Hon Don Foster MP. Quote it and remind the Council that this demonstrates value. There is a further ministerial statement from Kris Hopkins MP dated 26t January 2015 that contains some relevant supporting sentences worthy of quoting.

As we outlined previously, heritage value is a strong ground in itself. If your pub is Grade II (or II*) listed, in a conservation area or both, you are on solid ground. If neither, if may be near to a conservation area and the proximity may be relevant. Alternatively, the Council may have added it to the ‘local list’, which is a lesser designation but still relevant. If unlisted in every regard, the pub can still be treated as a non-designated heritage asset. See Para 135 of the NPPF. If there genuinely is no heritage value whatsoever, then leave this out. Do not invent grounds that do not exist as this could backfire and count against you.

There are some generic arguments that help to make the case for the social value of pubs. It is a good idea to refer to, or quote key sections of, the two seminal reports on the subject, which are Pubs & Places by Rick Muir (IPPR 2012) and Friends on Tap by Robin Dunbar et al (CAMRA 2016). These are available online for free. If the pub is tied, it may also be relevant to defeat any spurious viability arguments by referring to Tied Down by Glenn Gottfried (IPPR 2011). This explains the harmful and largely unsustainable business practices exploited by the pubcos. It is relevant as countless pubs have been completely transformed when freed of the tie and placed in the hands of a responsible operator who understand the aspirations and needs of the community. Often you simply need to make the Council see beyond the present lacklustre premises and inspire them to imagine what could be, if the pub was allowed to fulfil its true potential. There are many previously threatened and written off pubs that have gone on to win CAMRA awards.

Finally, you should outline what the pub means to YOU. After all, this is YOUR local. What teams use it? What facilities does it have that make it special? Which celebrities or famous figures in arts, industry or commerce have frequented it? What charitable works are performed there? How does it benefit otherwise marginalised members of the community? What history can the pub boast? Was your engagement, wedding, graduation, retirement, birthday held there? Does it provide diverse service to the community, perhaps a parcel drop off or custodian of spare keys for the elderly? This is where poetic licence, within reason, might be appropriate. Developers like to present a narrative of ‘just another clapped out boozer of many – nothing special’ and it is your task to defeat this with reasoned argument and proper evidence. You need to convince the Council that this pub is special or, by virtue of its heritage and setting, could be special. Your campaign needs to mobilise and pull out the stops and you need to persuade the Council that this pub is so very special that only those with the hardest hearts could possibly countenance allowing its destruction. It can be done. It really does work. The planning battle is actually the most empowering part of the process for ordinary folk. In Saving Pubs Toolkit - Part 5 we will provide template letters of objection which are real world examples. Until then, keep the faith and enjoy London’s pubs.