Planning policy, and a recognition of its current failure to protect pubs from closure or change of use, has been evolving fast in the city of Cambridge and is continuing to do so.

In March 2012 the Government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) came into effect. Amongst other things this framework says that planning authorities should "plan positively for community facilities (it specifically mentions pubs) and to guard against unnecessary losses".

As highlighted in the last edition of ALE the framework has already helped to potentially save pubs on our patch, and in Cambridge the City Councillors have considered policies intended to build on the NPPF.

But will these policies go far enough? And will pubs currently under threat and facing future threat be saved?

Earlier this year, in response to public concerns over the number of pub closures in Cambridge, Cambridge City Council commissioned a survey of the city's pubs and in May released a draft Interim Planning Policy Guidance (IPPG) with a view to the protection of Public Houses in the City of Cambridge.

The IPPG is a list of proposals aimed at protecting pubs including:

  1. Planning permission for the redevelopment of pubs and former pubs could be refused unless they had been marketed for 12 months as a pub, free of tie, at a price decided by an independent professional valuer.
  2. A developer has to show that reasonable efforts have been made to preserve a pub, or former pub; that adequate alternative pub provision existed locally, and that the local community no longer needed it.
At first glance, when we received the proposals over a month previously, it seemed that there was good reason to celebrate.

However, on looking more closely, we realized that the proposed IPPG would only apply to changes to pub premises that required planning permission.

Many of the pubs we are trying to protect are now either restaurants (the Cross Keys, Ancient Druids), offices (the Rose & Crown) or shops (the Bird in Hand). These are all changes of use that can be undertaken without the need to seek council planning permission.

In April 2012, Cambridge& District CAMRA highlighted the loss of so many city pubs by organising and publicising a "Tour of Destruction". Of the 23 closed and threatened pubs we visited on that tour 8 had been lost to uses that did not require planning permission and therefore would not be protected by the new IPPG policy.

In our response to the IPPG proposal, we welcomed the initiative but pointed out its failings. Together with fellow campaign group Cambridge Past, Present and Future, we urged the City Council to make an Article 4 Direction.

Article 4 directions are usually made when the character of an area of acknowledged importance would be threatened. They are most common in conservation areas.

However, we argued that the same direction could be issued by Cambridge City Council, who have, in accordance with the government NPPF, already acknowledged the importance of Cambridge community pubs, to ensure that changes of use of pubs to shops, offices and restaurants would require the same scrutiny and give the same protection to pubs as if they were to be developed as housing.

In addition to giving a formal written response to the IPPG we lobbied all the city councillors, explaining the reasons why we felt their policy fell short of the mark and why it didn't offer pubs the protection they claimed it did. I, representing CAMRA, and Nigel Bell from Cambridge Past, Present and Future, attended the Council's Environment Scrutiny Committee, on Tuesday 9th October, where we were allowed to put forward our case.

Since April 2012 and the CAMRA "Tour of Destruction" a further five pubs have closed in the city. Two of those closures (The Jolly Scholar and The Alexandra Arms) are hopefully short-term.

We naively believed that another two (The Osborne Arms and The Ranch) would require planning permission if the developers were to proceed with their plans. The Osborne Arms has now been demolished - a "mistake" by the developer who hadn't realized that the pub was subject to a conservation order.

The fifth pub is The Bird (in Hand) on Newmarket Road. Sold by Greene King to a developer, The Bird is closed and is threatened with conversion into an estate agent. Although leading to the loss of a pub, this change of use does not require planning permission, so The Bird is not protected by The City Council's IPPG.

The community formerly served by the Bird was not primarily a geographical one. What drew most of its customers was their sexuality. It was the only LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender) pub in Cambridgeshire.

The ex-landlord of The Bird informed us that in his view the pub was a financially viable business and that, freed from tie to Greene King, it promised to be even more successful. Failures in the IPPG may well have resulted in the unnecessary loss of this valuable community facility.

Just suppose the owners of the only pub in your area decided to convert it into a shoe shop. The IPPG as drafted would be powerless to stop it. It is our view, we said, that in such a case, and in the case of The Bird, City Councillors would be hard pressed to find an answer if asked to show that they had carried out the NPPF obligation to "plan positively for community facilities [such as pubs] and to guard against unnecessary losses".

We argued that an Article 4 Directive would protect pubs and would ensure that the City Council's NPPF obligation is met.

I'm pleased to say that to a some extent the Councillors agreed with our point of view, and voted unanimously to accept the IPPG. They also determined that "strong consideration" would be given to the use of Article 4 where pubs are not already protected by a conservation order.

There are several instances that show the tide may be turning against the wanton destruction of city pubs in Cambridge. In some recent planning applications effecting pubs, councillors have rejected planning applications despite council officers recommending acceptance. When these decisions have gone to appeal the inspectors have rejected the appeals.

Unfortunately there are also instances, such as The Osborne, that show it may be too late, and even with the IPPG may not be enough not be enough.

We applaud our city councillors for the decisions they have made so far. There is no doubt that some pubs have been saved by their actions. But we would also have liked to have seen the Article 4 Directive used as a matter of course rather than remain a consideration.

Ali Cook
Contact details for Cambridge City Councillors can be found: here