Pubs and Planning Legislation Debate
House of Commons
Thursday 12 February
Pubs and Planning Legislation
Grahame M. Morris: It is an honour to follow the hon. Members who have spoken. I thank and pay tribute to fellow officers of the all-party save the pub group—the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), who opened the debate so succinctly and precisely, and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who has been such a dogged and long-standing campaigner for Save the Pub. I add my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, which does such a sterling job in identifying subjects for debate that are dear to the hearts of Members and constituents.
We often say that there should be more cross-party consensus, particularly on policies relating to the NHS and social care, but a long journey starts with a single step, and perhaps on this topic, which has attracted support across all parties, we may be able to reach consensus. I am sorry that the Minister has slipped out for a moment, as hon. Members have made some excellent suggestions for a way forward.
My contention is that a way forward was offered by an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill that was tabled by me and the hon. Members for Leeds North West and for Bristol North West, which attracted the support of 38 Members of Parliament. The proposal was hardly revolutionary: to promote diversity, it offered some choice. It did not offer any permanent protection; it was simply an attempt to introduce community consultation to try to prevent viable pubs being closed and steamrollered into an alternative use, usually as a supermarket.
I echo the disappointment of the hon. Member for Bristol North West at the response of the Government, who have sought to block every effort to support tenants and safeguard our pubs. At all stages the Government seek to water down and amend legislation to favour powerful self-interests in the pub industry—those of the large pub companies—rather than working in the best interests of communities, customers and tenants. It is a shame that this debate is necessary at all. New clause 16 to the Infrastructure Bill would have made quite a simple change to the planning laws, empowering communities to protect their local pubs from being demolished or converted into supermarkets without consultation.
Earlier hon. Members were trying to differentiate pubs that are clearly no longer viable as pubs and those that have support and are clearly viable, and that perhaps offer a range of services, such as restaurants. As today’s motion notes, the existing planning laws in relation to permitted development are causing valued and viable community pubs to be targeted by supermarkets. Hon. Members have given examples in Canvey Island, Bristol and North East Derbyshire, where that is precisely what has happened. In east Durham, in Easington, which has 18 villages and two large towns, there have been so many pub closures that there may be one pub left in a village. In some villages—Hawthorn, Dalton-le-Dale, Hesledon—there may be one or perhaps even two pubs, but there is considerable pressure, particularly on the tenants of pubs that are owned by the large pubcos. As we have heard, research from the Campaign for Real Ale suggests that a considerable number of pubs—I have a figure of 29, but the hon. Member for Bristol North West said that it is 31, and I am sure she is correct—are closing every week, and quite a number of those are being converted into supermarkets.
I greatly appreciated the widespread support that was shown for new clause 16, which offered such protections for community pubs. It was defeated only following a late intervention from the Government when the Minister made a token concession to remove pubs listed as an asset of community value from permitted development rights. While new clause 16 would have protected all pubs, the Government’s amendments potentially protect only 600 of the 48,000 pubs in the UK. This comes from a Government—on both sides of the coalition—who believe in and promote localism. Requiring ACV status to protect one’s local simply adds unnecessary bureaucracy and costs when a much simpler alternative is to empower local people. I am at a loss to understand why the Government believe that nightclubs, launderettes and casinos should have more protection than community pubs.
By opposing planning protections for pubs, the Government have failed to protect pubs and community interests. Not only that, but we continue to see efforts to water down an important decision of this House to empower pub tenants against pub-owning companies. That is an important factor in the many conversions. Last year, the House expressed its clear will to offer tenants a market-only rent option as part of a statutory code of practice between themselves and a large pub-owning company. I recognise that we have a planning Minister here and the purview of ministerial responsibility is perhaps not entirely his, but it is germane to the debate that we consider the implications. Importantly, such a safeguard would help to protect the tied publican who may be struggling financially. Some 46% of tied tenants earn less than £15,000 a year despite their hard work and, in most cases, long hours. Nearly nine out of 10—the exact figure is 88%—identified the beer tie as one of their most significant financial problems.
The market rent-only option agreed by the House helps to level the playing field and redress the balance of power between the tenant and the pub-owning company. That may relieve the pressure that is leading to so many pub closures—31 per week, as I said. It is important to note that the market rent-only option would not end the beer tie—as some critics have claimed, saying that it would be a retrograde step—but would ensure that pub-owning companies had to show real value to their tenants in order to retain the tie.
Despite the House’s support and the benefits to tenants, Tory peers—including some with clear vested interests, if I may say so—have been trying to exempt pub companies from the market rent-only option if they significantly invest in a tenant’s pub. “Significant investment” is an incredibly wide concept. While I am not surprised that a peer with a pecuniary interest would try to undermine the statutory code, I am more concerned about the Government’s efforts to reword and water down the protections of the market rent-only option without consulting MPs, or Fair Deal For Your Local campaigners, prior to inserting replacement clauses into the statutory pubs code legislation.
Subsequently there has been some consultation with the various interest groups, all of which the members of the all-party save the pub group have met, including Fair Deal For Your Local, the Campaign for Real Ale and trade unions representing pub landlords, such as my own union, Unite, and the GMB. Importantly, however, despite promising to do so, the Government did not consult in advance and the discussions seem to have taken place after decisions have been made.
Simon Clarke from the Fair Deal For Your Local campaign is an outstanding advocate in defence of our pubs. He has warned that one revised clause means that existing tenants will not have the option of a parallel rent assessment, resulting in a tied tenant being unable to determine whether they would be worse off than if they were free of tie. That was an absolutely key principle of the Bill and Ministers gave us an assurance from the Dispatch Box that that would be the case.
A Government Minister said in the other place that Ministers
“are always discussing these issues and changes with tenants”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 December 2014; Vol. 757, c. 1243.]
However, despite such assurances, Mr Simon Clarke describes the Government’s amendments as
“an attempt to bulldoze through amendments without the dialogue and consultation promised.”
The Government should explain their position.
I have a number of questions to put to the Minister. Why are the Government failing to support local communities to protect their pubs? What are their objections to allowing local people a say in the planning process when a change of use is proposed for a pub? Will the Minister guarantee that he and the Government will work with MPs and campaigners to ensure that the explicit will of the House of Commons in supporting a market rent-only option in a statutory code is not undermined or watered down in the other place, because that would simply compound the problem?
It is time for the Government to do more than pay lip service to supporting communities, consumers and tenants, and to safeguard pubs and begin to offer some practical support. As my Health Committee colleague the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) has said, before we call time on this Parliament—that is a really good expression—we should ensure that we can, in unanimity, provide some modest protection to pubs that are in the interests of all our communities.