Why the Micropub Association should be furious with Camra

The Micropub Association should be absolutely raging with the Campaign for Real Ale. Because under the misguided idea that it is “saving” the British pub, Camra is trying hard to make sure no new pubs ever get opened again.

Once again this is a case of not properly thinking through the implications of a proposed policy. What Camra wants to do is to try to make it much more difficult to close pubs (more on why that’s a stupid idea later). So why will making it more difficult to close pubs also make it much more difficult to open new pubs, in the way that the Micropub Association has been doing so successfully over the past few years, at a rate currently running at two a month (a better new pub opening record, afaik, than any pub company is currently achieving.)

The problem is that the restrictions Camra wants to put in the way of anyone trying to shut a pub means that landlords will be extremely reluctant to let their property be turned into a new pub. And similarly banks, building societies and other lenders will be deeply unwilling to give anyone a mortgage to buy a property they want to turn into a pub. Why? Because if the new pub business goes nipple-skywards after a year or three, the landlord now has a property that, under Camra’s proposed rules, needs planning permission to be turned back into something other than a pub. So instead of speedily being able to find another tenant, the landlord now has to go through the expensive and time-wasting procedure of getting the building “depubbed” again before it can once more become a coffee shop, an opticians or whatever. Similarly the potential mortgage lender is not going to want to risk having to repossess the building that housed a failed new pub business, and, again, having to find the staff, time and money to put in a planning application (do you know how long it takes to get a planning application through?) for change of use so they can then flog the place to a non-pub user. So – finance for people wanting to open new pubs is going to dry right up, because Camra has a dumb idea it thinks will help pubs stay open.

Indeed, the first move should anything like Camra’s “planning permission to close pubs” idea approach the statute books will be a rash of pub closures, as pub owners shut their marginal pubs before they have to seek local councillors’ permission to do so. But even if such a law did come in, does anyone seriously believe it would prevent a single pub from closing? Of course it wouldn’t. And trying to preserve failing pubs in aspic is a remarkably dumb idea anyway, because the ultimate effect is to damage successful pubs by depriving them of business they deserve.

The whole idea that pubs need special protection is nonsense, anyway, as I have frequently argued. Pubs are not sacred. The rights of pubgoers do not trump the rights of property owners. The disappearance of any pub is not the same as, eg, the disappearance of a Saxon church. Pubs are, and have always been, “churned” all the time: one closes, another one opens. (It may surprise you to learn that JD Wetherspoon has closed more than 100 of the pubs it has opened over the years). If a pub is making less money for its owner than it would under another use, the owner must have the right to maximise their income. If a pub closes, and a community feels it needs a pub, let someone open a new pub, in a more viable site with fewer overheads. Except that if Camra has its way, opening that new pub will be much more difficult.

Camra can’t even get its own arguments straight. It complains about pubs being turned into shops and then declares that “69% of all adults believe that a well-run community pub is as important to community life as a post office, local shop or community centre.” So – shops are important, too! Indeed, the reason why so many pubs are being turned into shops is because to many communities, local shops are MORE important than pubs, in the sense that more people use their local shop and spend more money in it, than use their local pub. I would guarantee you that any pub turned into a Tesco now has a wider selection of the community crossing its threshold, more frequently, than ever happened when it was the Duck and Dive, or whatever. Most pubs have a remarkably low number of real regulars, and the importance to the community that Camra ascribes to them in the 21st century is a product of sepia-tinted nostalgia for the times before the last old maid bicycled to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning (G. Orwell).

If there is one single thing that would increase the chance of survival of the British pub – and I won’t yield to you, Camra or anyone in my desire to see our pubs strong and thriving – it would be a dramatic improvement in the standard of cask beer served in those pubs. Cask beer is (or should be) the unique selling point of our pubs, and Camra would do a far better job thinking up ways to improve the quality of our pints than inventing stupid tweaks to planning laws that won’t work, and will actually have a seriously detrimental effect on the efforts of people like the Micropubs Association trying to open pubs of just the sort Camra members approve.

74 thoughts on “Why the Micropub Association should be furious with Camra

  1. I entirely agree with your analysis here, and salute you for putting your head in the lion’s mouth.

    Possibly a couple of ways to mitigate the problems you describe would be either to have a timeframe of x years during which a newly-opened bar didn’t need planning permission for change of use to retail, or to say that it wouldn’t apply to any new bars opened after the measure became law.

    But it should be bleeding obvious that, as Royal Assent approached, there would be an absolute stampede to get failing pubs converted to shops.

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  2. Closing a pub, much like closing any business, does not require planning or other consents. It is the change of use to other purposes that is so much easier and more attractive.

    Pubs that are failing as pub businesses maybe one thing – though there are strong arguments advanced that for tenancies it is the over-onerous terms including beer ties and high pricing that are the significant matters that are at the heart of that problem.

    It is when perfectly viable and profitable pub businesses are closed, or demolished, because (mainly it seems) the lessor or freeholder can realise a capital value that helps pay down excessive debt taken on in over-exuberant times that people interested in good pubs – perhaps their local, or where they are a regular – and excellent cask beer get very concerned. It’s not just cask beer drinkers who get upset when their favoured local or regular pubs is threatened.

    Perhaps it shouldn’t go without saying that many pubs as buildings as well as uses having a major role in local high streets as well as businesses. A case in point could be the Packhorse and Talbot on Chiswick High Road Turnham Green London – a Taylor Walker house that by all accounts trades well. It is owned by an investment company that appears to intend demolition and re-development.

    From http://www.chiswickw4.com

    “The owners of the site of the Packhorse and Talbot on Chiswick High Road have made an application to proceed with the demolition of the pub. The building could be gone within a month if the necessary approvals are received.

    Information on the Council’s planning pages states that the demolition is for redevelopment. The applicant proposes to undertake the demolition between 8 September and 31 October 2014.

    Adam Beamish, local resident and planning consultant said on the ChiswickW4.com forum, “effectively the building has to either be listed or be within a conservation area within 28 days from the date of submission to prevent its demolition (assuming the details submitted regarding the nature of the proposed demolition and any remedial work are satisfactory – which I imagine if whoever has submitted the application has done their homework they will be).”

    Another local planning consultant told us that it was extremely unusual for a demolition notice to be published before planning permission had been received for a site. His view was that it was extremely unlikely that the existing building would be knocked down before consents had been given for a replacement. The Packhorse and Talbot is understood to be trading profitably particularly with the nearby George IV currently closed for refurbishment.

    Local amenity groups are considering a response but a member of one said that they felt it was unlikely that a listing could be obtained in time to prevent demolition. Although the current building was put up in the 20th century there has been a pub on the site since 1650.

    The applicant is Silus Investments SA who are represented by a firm of solicitors based in the Strand. Unconfirmed reports suggests that the Panama based company owns adjacent plots on Chiswick High Road.

    Staff, many of whom live above the pub and would lose their homes if it was demolished, have been told that it could be as much as a year before the pub closes and that the owners posted the notice to gauge what local reaction would be. Staff were given no advance warning that the notices was to be published.

    Taylor Walker are the licencees of the Packhorse and Talbot. Guest Services Area Manager Ed Cornwell, says that there are no plans to demolish the pub.

    The agent is given as Mr Stuart Mills of JB Planning Associates Limited. We contacted Mr. Mills asking for more details but he was unable to provide further information other than to say that he was acting on behalf of the landowner and the application documents would be published shortly on the Hounslow Council web site.

    We have also contacted Spirit Group, the pub chain who own the Packhorse and Talbot, but have not received a reply.

    The application reference is P/2014/3260 ( 00248/145/DEM1 ). You can give comments on these plans by visiting the Council’s planning pages and using this reference to search for the application.”

    August 13, 2014

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  3. Unfortunately the “thinking up ways to improve the quality of our pints” is likely to be interpreted by CAMRA as banning keg beers as their outmoded definition of Real Ale still doesn’t include kegged craft ale.

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  4. Martyn – I tend to Agee with you on this – pubs will close but others will open.

    There is room for allowing local ‘communities’ the chance to take over a pub whose owner wishes it to close. ACV has proved useful in this respect (locally to me, the Angel. @ Spinkhill and the Anglers @ Bamford – the latter now includes the Post Office and a cafe) – in both cases the local CAMRA branch has provided a publicity outlet as things have developed.

    However, in the same period, plenty of local pubs have closed. In most cases, there was little concern and no community action.

    Also, agreed that the main aim of CAMRA should continue to be cask beer quality.

    Ps – am a life CAMRA member, currently en route to Olympia to serve behind the bar until Saturday – also no beard

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    • A pub may be viable as a pub but still worth more as something else. You can’t tell a property owner they have to forego profits they could make selling to Tesco just because you might want to drink in their pub one day.

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            • If it’s not a self-evident human right to be allowed to do what you like with your own property provided it’s not to the harm or annoyance of others, I don’t know what it is. You clearly think you’re harmed by not being allowed to continue to drink in a pub someone wants to convert into a supermarket. I suggest any harm you might suffer is less than the economic harm done to the pub owner in not being allowed to make as much money as they wish from their property. I repeat: the interests of pub-goers are not so vital that they trump the interests of property owners. The harms caused by the closure of any one pub are certainly less than the harms caused by letting peopele drive at 90mph past schools. And in any case, I repeat once again: if a pub closes, but there’s an economic case for a pub in that area, it’s comparatively easy to open a new one.

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              • The “interests of property owners” don’t self-evidently trump the interests of the wider community. Nor is it clear (at least to me) that human rights considerations pertain to property owning corporations. And besides, no-one’s proposing that property owners shouldn’t ever be able to de-pub a property, merely that it shouldn’t be anomalously spared the kind of review that many other changes of use already are.

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                • Of course the State is entitled if it so choose to make all kinds of regulations about the change of use of private property. But it also has to recognise that if taken too far it will lead to excess bureaucracy and a more unresponsive and scelerotic economy.

                  The argument here is not that CAMRA’s proposals will represent a complete violation of the rights of man, but that they won’t achieve what CAMRA claims they will. They won’t do anything to address the demand for pubs, which is the main reason for their mass closure in recent years, they will encourage a stampede of conversions before the legislation comes into force, and they will discourage people from opening new pubs and bars if they fear having to jump through bureaucratic hoops to de-pub them if not successful.

                  As a general rule, the way to stimulate any market is to reduce barriers to entry, not raise barriers to exit.

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                • If a property owner makes more more from a property as a shop or home rather than as a pub, that’s because the “wider community” is placing more value on that usage by handing over more money. You also assume that the sort of review of proposals to close a pub Camra wants will make any difference whatsoever to keeping a pub open.

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  5. I note the first part borrows from the standard argument that legislation protecting employees from redundancy will reduce employment as bosses become more wary of taking people on.

    The equivalent argument here might have some validity if there was something like equilibrium in entry and exit. As it is, we see thousands of pubs closing every year, and a few dozen new pubs opening. Restricting both ends of the process would lead to a significant slowing in the reduction of pub numbers.

    (You might not think that’s a good thing, as per subsequent paragraphs, but the argument in the first bit is still a poor one.)

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    • No, it doesn’t borrow from the argument against redundancy legislation at all. Totally different arguments. And if you think trying to make it more difficult to close pubs will mean fewer pubs closing, you don’t understand the reasons why pubs close.

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      • Sorry? The proposed legislation will have zero effect on closures (but a significant effect on openings)? Well, that’s a new line of argument. It’s not going to be catastrophic, in fact it won’t have any effect at all?

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          • Counter-argument? I haven’t heard your argument yet. Normally making things more difficult is assumed to make them less likely to happen. Can you explain why this won’t be the case?

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            • It’s a similar argument to the one that making it more difficult to dismiss workers means employers are less likely to take them on in the first place.

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              • No, that’s the other end of the process. Martyn’s specifically claiming that *in addition to* deterring new pubs, legislation will not stop a single existing pub closing.

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  6. If the argument is that commercially unviable pubs are community assets that provide multiple immeasureable positive externalities, then surely they should be treated in the same way as churches and village halls and other assets of significant community value that could not survive purely as a business.

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  7. “Camra would do a far better job thinking up ways to improve the quality of our pints than inventing stupid tweaks to planning laws that won’t work, and will actually have a seriously detrimental effect on the efforts of people like the Micropubs Association trying to open pubs of just the sort Camra members approve.”

    One tiny thing that could make a difference to the standard of cask in many a pub is the use of cask breathers to make the cask last longer. If CAMRA would just drop its ban on cask breather for the Good Beer Guide and thinking of it as the thin end of some imaginary wedge, then places that serve perfectly good beer could get a bit more publicity by being included in the book. Just a thought.

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  8. “If there is one single thing that would increase the chance of survival of the British pub – and I won’t yield to you, Camra or anyone in my desire to see our pubs strong and thriving – it would be a dramatic improvement in the standard of cask beer served in those pubs.”

    One thing? Improvement of cask beer? Are you kidding?

    I don’t suppose (shhh, whisper it, the heresy) that allowing landlords the choice of operating smoking or non-smoking pubs would make any difference, would it? After all, it was the smoking ban which precipitated the drastic closure rate since 2007 (which is a well documented fact, despite the whining of the anti-smoker mob that it was the recession / supermarket cheap booze / pubco prices etc etc).

    I would put good money on the fact that if landlords were given the choice, not only would a large percentage of them jump at the opportunity to operate a smoking pub, but they would thrive. Whether the cask beer is nectar or vinegar would have a minimal impact if the pub was fuggy with smoke and heaving with friendly banter, the way pubs used to be, pre-ban. Now they are ‘smoke-free’, they have all the appeal and atmosphere of a doctor’s waiting room (complete with screaming kids), with the added insult of smelling of stale beer and urine, something that tobacco smoke seemed to cover.

    That elephant in the room isn’t going to go away, no matter how much you try to ignore it.

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      • There are 10,000,000 people who enjoy smoking in the UK and smoking prevalence has been static since 2007.
        We are human and deserved to be treated like humans. The filthy smoking ban treats us no better than dogs , to be chucked out like animals.

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        • If there are 10m people who “enjoy” smoking, that means there are 50m people who think it’s a stinky, hazardous infringement on their right to breathe clean, unpolluted air. That’s the last comment on this thread on smoking – all subsequent contributions on that subject will be deleted, so don’t bother.

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  9. Sound article, I like the point especially about the supposed ubiquity of the regulars culture. This is in fact passing in the Anglo-Saxon countries (or those with cultures derived) by my admittedly non-scientific observation and reading. Where it endures, it is usually a wrinklies crowd who hang on to the old ways. But a question: what is a “micropub”? Clearly something of importance to warrant an association. How does it differ from the standard pub, brew-on-premises or BrewDog-type craft bar? This has eluded my radar.

    Gary

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  10. Pingback: News, Nuggets & Longreads 16/08/2014

  11. But surely all planning law, as well as listing requirements, are constraints on what you can do with your property in order to reflect society’s wider interests so if we consider there is a societal benefit to a particular property being a pub (which we can debate) then there would seem to be a clear precedent. – I’ d like to sell my house to Tesco for a greatly inflated price but my neighbours might have something to say and planning law provides the mechanism for them to do so. Just as I would expect to have say if a new pub was opening next door why shouldn’t I have a say if the pub is to be closed and a 24 hour shop open in its stead.

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    • Indeed. But Camra’s proposals to alter planning law would not, in fact, have the effect they seek to achieve and would actually make matters worse. Nothing wrong with good planning law if it achieves aims society is agreed on. Plenty wrong if it ends up having serious unintended consequences.

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      • There is a perfectly decent argument that pub-to-shop conversions should require planning permission. But the idea that it would actually prevent the closure of significant numbers of pubs is delusional.

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  12. The argument has a lot of credibility but it pre-supposes a fully functional market system. Unfortunately the British real estate market is incredibly distorted and Camra’s proposal is a response to clear dysfunction in the property market. In the North of England the property market is not as inflated and pubs have closed at a reasonable rate over at least the last 70 years. Many of those now closing are quite clearly surplus to the current market and their closure reflects changing social mores. However in the South East a pub may not be able to yield a profit of the size that a developer might envisage for the site. It is a dysfunctional market where foreign buyers are contributing to the distortion. When the property bubble bursts we may end up thinking that a pub should have been saved and would have represented a more profitable use of the site it sits on. It would more likely be a better social asset than a block of flats owned by millionaires in the Far East. There is a role for a regulated market rather than letting unfettered capitalism rip through a community to deliver short term profits for a hedge fund based in an offshore tax haven.

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        • The theory suggests new distortions may lead to a more optimal solution. I suggest history shows that the law of unintended consequences is likely to triumph over any attempt to legislate a maximally optimum solution.

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      • There is no such thing as a perfect market. Markets are the result of social and political forces as much as economic ones. The property market has become dysfunctional because of political actions. The decision to boost the demand side of the housing market without boosting the supply side has led to an asset bubble. The market is further distorted by the decision to turn London into a tax haven for the world’s wealthy. Property has become a place to store money. My son recently bought a stone built house for £95k. In the part of London where I grew up a similar house would fetch at least £1.8 million. That is a market that politicians have allowed to become dangerously unbalanced. In such circumstances it requires political action. It needs the demand to be taken out of the property market, controls on people buying property to store wealth and an increase in the supply side. It won’t happen – so an attempt to protect our social assets is justified. I don’t think Camra is calling for a blanket preservation of all pubs just those that are a community asset.

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  13. I agree that CAMRAs proposals could have unintended negative consequences for new pub openings.

    I don’t agree that no protection is needed for pubs and that the market will sort itself out, or that property owners should be allowed to pursue profit when it harms communities.

    This means I am assuming that a pub is better for a community than a shop. In some rare cases a shop is needed more than a pub. I agree that a shop or fast food outlet can make more money and have more people through the door than a pub on the same site.

    However, not everything can be measured monetarily. A pub, or indeed a cafe, or community centre or a library can fulfill functions that a supermarket cannot. When’s the last time you started a freindship in Tesco? I’m sure we can agree that viable pubs are worth saving.

    So the question is how to save them. CAMRA may not have got it quite right. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know that leaving it up to the market and bad capitalism will be harmful.

    How about letting CAMRA’s proposed changes only apply to premises that were built to be pubs, or have been pubs for 50 years or more? How about penalising corporate property owners who let premises lie unnoccupied for long periods?

    Finally here’s a radical idea that i’ve thought about a lot but needs further analyses: revoke all supermarket’s licenses to sell alcohol. This would solve a lot of socio-ecomonic problems.

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    • “I am assuming that a pub is better for a community than a shop”

      Really, Kieran – have you actually thought that through?

      Try to guess what percentage of people in a community will use a pub, against what percentage will use a local shop.

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        • If it sucks money out of the area, it only sucks it into another area, and something else might suck money out of that area into your area. You do realise that the whole basis of modern prosperity is different areas specialising in what they do best and trading the surplus with other areas, rather than each area seeking to be self-sufficient in everything?

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          • I take your point, but…
            What is wrong with an area being as self sufficient as it can? Is it not better using local suppliers and having business owners with a connection to the community they are trading in?

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            • But if an area – or a country – tries to do everything itself, there will be some things it can do well, but others which it will do less well than other areas. So overall prosperity will be maximised by each area specialising in what it does well and trading with other areas. What’s wrong with self-suifficency? It makes you poorer, that’s what.

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              • I’m familiar with the idea of trade between areas to enrich everyone, but I disagree that self sufficiency makes you poorer. I can give you examples if you would like.

                My original point, which I admit was not made too eloquently, is that supermarkets, much like pub companies, have shareholders and boards to which they are beholden, and they suck out money from customers, suppliers and their own employees to enrich themselves. All good you might say, all legal, and hey that’s capitalism, it’s the market, it’s competition.

                The problem comes when the pub company wants to sell an asset of the community such as a pub to a supermarket against their wishes so they can both get rich. If that’s what the community wants, then great. If they don’t, they have a right to oppose it. The correct legislation to help them would be a good thing. At the same time, this legislation would need to careful not to make it harder to open something somewhere else that a community may want, whether that is a supermarket or a micropub.

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                • Kieran, it’s clear you don’t understand what shareholders actually do. They risk their money by putting up the capital without which the business wouldn’t exist. As a reward for risking their money, they get a slice of the profits. It’s just like betting: they bet their money on the managers and the workers, and they win – by getting dividends – or lose, by never seeing the money they spent on shares again. If the shareholders didn’t take risks with their money, the managers, workers and suppliers wouldn’t have businesses to manage, work for or supply. So nobody can (or should) begrudge the money shareholders get from the business as their reward for taking a risky punt.

                  Second, a pub is not an asset the community has any real rights over, any more than it has rights over a hamburger joint, a nail bar or a supermarket. I know this is something many people don’t seem to be able to grasp, because of the emotional attachment they have to pubs, but there it is.

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                  • The argument about CAMRA’s proposals being ineffective is more likely to prove persuasive than the ‘Hayek for Dummies’ spiel about the sanctity of property rights. Given that many (if not most) people don’t share the fundamental beliefs which the latter argument rests on, trying to persuade us the argument is correct is likely to be a waste of time.

                    If, on the other hand, you can adequately explain to CAMRA that their proposals will be counter-productive – something I haven’t seen in the article or any of your comments – then they ought to pay attention. I for one would be interested to hear.

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                    • If, on the other hand, you can adequately explain to CAMRA that their proposals will be counter-productive – something I haven’t seen in the article or any of your comments – then they ought to pay attention. I for one would be interested to hear.

                      Sigh. I HAVE done. I’ll just repeat myself. No landlord will allow their property to be turned into a pub, no lender will lend against a mortgage to turn a property into a pub, because of the barriers Camra wants to impose against “depubbing” properties. So Camra’s proposals will not only not save pubs, they will actively work against opening new pubs.

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                  • That is a pretty simplistic definition of shareholders. Most shares are held by institutional investors, other corporations and hedge funds. Their remit is to make money from shares. There is no long term strategy and the money goes where the quickest short term profits can be made. The type of responsible capitalism that you are talking about is long gone.

                    This means that decision making by corporations is not geared to long term profitability. Some of the largest pub companies have very weak balance sheets with liabilities that need to be met by liquidating fixed assets. This is accounting for cash flow and is not about long term growth. Hence profitable pubs can be closed.

                    And what about the case where a profitable pub is taken over by a new owner who runs it for a couple of months before announcing that it is not profitable. He then says he is converting it into a house. Should we all to stand to one side because he owns the property? Theoretical? No – it happened to the Sun at Hulverstone in the Isle of Wight. The pub was the only community asset. Fortunately the council held their ground and refused a change of planning permission. The pub re-opened after two years and is once again highly successful. To have allowed one man’s greed and deception in converting a beautiful thatched pub with a sea view into his own house would have been unforgivable. Yes – we need planning regulations to control selfish, greedy people damaging community resources.

                    Note that this is not a demand to preserve all pubs regardless of circumstances!

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                    • Well said both Peter and Economist, you have put it and the made the point better than I managed to.
                      Martyn, you said ”Second, a pub is not an asset the community has any real rights over, any more than it has rights over a hamburger joint, a nail bar or a supermarket. I know this is something many people don’t seem to be able to grasp, because of the emotional attachment they have to pubs, but there it is.”
                      My reply to you would be to state again that not everything should come down to money, and the ’emotional attachment’ you talk about should not be dismissed, as you seem to have done.
                      I’ve a feeling our politics are different (to say the least!) so i’ll leave it there and have the grace to let you have the last word, since it’s your blog🙂
                      (and a good blog it is too, considering how much debate it has generaed).

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                    • “To have allowed one man’s greed and deception in converting a beautiful thatched pub with a sea view into his own house would have been unforgivable.”

                      I’m sorry, but you’re talking total nonsense. It’s his property, and you don’t have any rights over what he wants to do with it, provided it isn’t illegal. If something becomes a pub, or has been used as a pub, it doesn’t give you or anybody else rights over it. If it was your house and people suddenly said “sorry, you can’t do what you like with it”, I doubt very much you’d feel the same.

                      And suppose there was a lovely building in just the same situation, but which had never been a pub: would “the community” be justified in seizing that property and saying, “this ought to be a community asset, we’re going to turn it into a pub”? No, absolutely not.

                      “Yes – we need planning regulations to control selfish, greedy people damaging community resources.”

                      Utter nonsense, again. A pub is not a “community resource” in a way that trumps ordinary property rights any more than any other use. There are tens of thousands of buildings that used to be pubs in this country. Does “the community” have a stake in every one, because of the ghost of their pubbishness? If my house became a pub, would that give “the community” sudden rights over its future? No.

                      I’m afraid you seem to have this mystic, Chesterbellocian, and frankly deeply selfish view of pubs and communities which tramples right across any natural justice view of property rights.

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                    • Martyn Cornell on August 22, 2014 at 6:13 pm said:

                      “To have allowed one man’s greed and deception in converting a beautiful thatched pub with a sea view into his own house would have been unforgivable.”

                      I’m sorry, but you’re talking total nonsense. It’s his property, and you don’t have any rights over what he wants to do with it, provided it isn’t illegal. If something becomes a pub, or has been used as a pub, it doesn’t give you or anybody else rights over it. If it was your house and people suddenly said “sorry, you can’t do what you like with it”, I doubt very much you’d feel the same.

                      And suppose there was a lovely building in just the same situation, but which had never been a pub: would “the community” be justified in seizing that property and saying, “this ought to be a community asset, we’re going to turn it into a pub”? No, absolutely not.

                      “Yes – we need planning regulations to control selfish, greedy people damaging community resources.”

                      Utter nonsense, again. A pub is not a “community resource” in a way that trumps ordinary property rights any more than any other use. There are tens of thousands of buildings that used to be pubs in this country. Does “the community” have a stake in every one, because of the ghost of their pubbishness? If my house became a pub, would that give “the community” sudden rights over its future? No.

                      I’m afraid you seem to have this mystic, Chesterbellocian, and frankly deeply selfish view of pubs and communities which tramples right across any natural justice view of property rights.

                      The column was getting rather thin so I’ve copied and pasted!

                      Your political and economic philosophy is very firmly on the Neo-con wing of the Conservative Party. Its logical conclusion is that the state shrinks away and the market takes over. That experiment was done once before at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Manchester was the world’s first industrial city and its unplanned and unregulated economy inspired wonder and revulsion in equal measures. It is no coincidence that a foreign resident, Friedrich Engels, and his friend Karl Marx expounded their theories as a result of what they saw in Manchester. Marx said that capitalism would concentrate all wealth into the hands of monopolists leaving the majority impoverished. Nobody seriously disputes that evaluation but what Marx failed to foresee is that democracies have the ability to adapt. In Britain we moved to full enfranchisement and the election of governments of all three parties who saw the role of a mixed economy, i.e. regulation of the market.

                      Having lived in the last of the old Manchester slums (water flowing through single brick walls, flagged floors, etc.) in the 1970s I would not wish to see building regulation or planning abandoned. I would also be against my next door neighbour setting up his house as a take-away or perhaps a cannabis factory. Would you seriously allow anybody to do whatever they wanted with their property? Sell off parks, playing fields, historic monuments?

                      That approach knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I’m thankful I live in a democracy which will never vote for your vision of no regulation. Surley the banking crash of 2008 should be a warning of what happens when regulation is not in place – our taxes are still paying for that mistake!

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  14. Saying that pub owners shouldn’t – as a matter of principle – be restricted from converting their property to non-pub uses is different from saying that imposing restrictions wouldn’t work, and that’s different again from saying that these particular restrictions would have unintended consequences. I’d have more patience with this post if you’d picked one argument and stuck with it. And saying that “failing pubs” shouldn’t be “preserved in aspic” is just knocking down a straw-man, unless you can find anyone actually saying that they should.

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    • Maybe various arguments are being conflated here, but the key point that giving existing pubs planning protection would not in practice lead to very many staying in business is a very strong one.

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      • Agreed, but if a pub is viable, and the majority of people in the area want to see it stay, how would you suggest stopping it being sold and changed into something else?

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      • I may have misread the original piece but I took one “key point” as being that we could do with “dramatic improvement in the standard of cask beer served”. Which I’d agree wholeheartedly with. But wouldn’t limit myself to “cask”..

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        • I saw that as a bit of a tangential aside, really. Yes, I’d like to see an improvement in the quality of cask beer, but I’m sceptical whether, in view of all the negative demand pressures, it would make much difference to the overall prospects of the pub trade.

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    • I’d have more patience with this post if you’d picked one argument and stuck with it.

      Sorry if I’m confusing you, but there ARE two arguments, and it IS important to say both that (1) the proposals are an unwarranted imfringement on property rights and (2) even if that argument is dismissed, the proposals wouldn’t work anyway.

      And saying that “failing pubs” shouldn’t be “preserved in aspic” is just knocking down a straw-man, unless you can find anyone actually saying that they should.

      I don’t think it’s building a straw man to suggest that Camra’s proposed change to the planning laws spring from a fundamental, albeit unarticulated, assumption that the viability of a pub is irrelevant, and the very fact that it is, or has been open as a pub in the recent past is justification enough for preventing it from being closed, a kind of “No cerrarán!”, to misquote the old Spanish Republican slogan.

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      • Yes, that’s precisely a straw man. You offer no *evidence* that CAMRA’s position “spring[s] from a fundamental, albeit unarticulated, assumption”. You simply *suggest* it. You define, then attack a position not shown to be held by your “opponent”, then act as though the other side’s position has been refuted. Pretty much a textbook example.

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        • What is insisting on a change in planning laws to try to make it more difficult to close pubs if not an attempt to try to preserve failing pubs in aspic?

          But attacking my alleged straw man – which, whether it’s a straw man or not, was just an aside speculating about Camra’s motives – is itself failing to attack the main points of my argument anyway, that being that the proposal (1) won’t save any pubs and instead (2) will cause harm to the cause of pub openings. Plus it’s an attack on property rights, which might be OK if that attack would do any good, but it won’t, so it’s definitely not OK.

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          • OK then. That a site might generate a higher return for the property owner as not-a-pub *does not* make it a “failing pub”. It merely makes it (e.g.) a poor supermarket (as in: it’s not one yet).

            Your points (1) and (2) have also been rebutted (or at least questioned strongly) above. But if your opponents can point to the saving of one pub, then (1) is dead in the water. If there’s one new opening after such a change then (2) is looking doubtful. Fragile arguments, these.

            The “property rights” question is a total red herring. The rights of corporate entities (or individuals for that matter) are not absolute. Never have been, never will be.

            For sure, increased regulation can increase costs for operators. In large part, that’s the point – to make activities carrying large external costs less attractive. And of course, a regulated imperfect market can ( I don’t say ‘must’) deliver better value to the public than an unregulated one.

            Your core point – an appeal to the “Law of unexpected consequences” – is valueless. If we do ‘something’, then bad, unexpected things will happen? It’s a truism. It’s an argument for the Status Quo in *all* circumstances. To be sure, bad, unexpected things will happen, whether we take a particular action or not. As useless a guide to decision making as would be its converse, an appeal to serendipity.

            See, I’m not even saying that you’re wrong. But presenting a slew of shoddy arguments doesn’t make you right.

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            • Jon, you’re mixing up my arguments (which may be my fault for not explaining them properly). Three points: (1) The “law of unintended consequences” is not the “law of consequences completely unforeseen by anybody” – Camra doesn’t intend its proposed change to planning law to have the consequences it will, but it will, and I’m predicting those consequences. I’m certainly not suggesting “do nothing ever”. (2) there is indeed a difference between a failing pub and one that makes money, but not as much as it would as a supermarket. (3) Pub owners have the right to say “I know this pub makes some money, but my money would be better invested somewhere else, making more money for me, which is why I’m closing/selling this pub.” Indeed, I can point you to a specific case where a pubco sold a pub, the pub swas bought by an independent operator and stayed open, and meanwhile the pubco invested the money it had got for the pub it sold in another four pubs in the district which were all already making more money than the sold pub. The sale of the first pub, and the fact that it subsequently appeared to be run successfully by an independent operator, was held up as an example of the failure of the pubco model, but in fact it was an example of pubco success: putting the pubco’s money to use where it could bring in the best returns.

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              • The Planning classes as currently formulated seem to embody an assumption about the social desirability of various kinds of use. So a change of use in the direction of increasing awfulness: A1 -> A2 – A3 -> A4 (drinking establishments) ->A5 requires permission, while change in the “desirable” direction: A5/4 -> A3 -> A2 -> A1 doesn’t. It seems to me that the proposed change (quite rightly) questions this assumption, specifically with regard to A4 -> A1

                In the interests of “freedom” you should perhaps campaign for a total relaxation such that anyone could open a (say) hot food takeaway (A5) wherever they wished. I don’t know if you live over or next door to one. I presume you’ve no objection, if the owner can obtain the best return on their investment that way.

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  15. What a fantastic post, and (for the most part) well argued debate.

    As an expat Englishman in Australia, I have a nostalgic fondness of “the great British pub”. But, in honesty (and noted on my recent trips home) 9 out of 10* British pubs are vile, damp-carpeted, humourless purveyors of factory-produced swill. Pubs that fit the stereotype of Sunday night television programmes like Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders, are a dramatic minority.

    I drink better beer here in Australia than I ever did in England. And whilst I’d love to be able to drink great beer in a great pub, I’d rather drink great beer (cask, keg, bottle or can) in a bar (or at home) than awful beer in a classic pub. Surely, the Classic British pub can only be saved by remaining an enticing place to spend one’s time and money, rather than by legislation.

    *96.4% of statistics are made up.

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