A legal loophole that allows pubs to be turned into shops without planning consent is to be targeted by South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC).
The council is set to lobby national government to close to loophole after they were unable to stop The Pear Tree pub in Hildersham from being turned into a German furniture shop as it remained within the retail category.
Residents had formed SToPiT – Save The Pear Tree – and hoped SCDC could pass an Article Four directive to stop landlord Helen Moroney from changing the pub, but at last Wednesday’s (January 8) planning committee meeting councillors realised they were powerless to stop the conversion of the village’s last amenity.
The pub had been listed as an asset of community value – like Abington campsite – and if it had been sold the community would have had six months to table a bid.
However, that rule brought in under the Government’s localism agenda offers no protection to buildings merely changing use.
SCDC will be asking for the Government to enable local communities to have more of a say when to ensure listed assets can be retained in rural villages.
Nationally, the number of pubs is declining and SCDC’s call for action follows the Campaign for Real Ale’s plea to Government for change of planning policy.
Under current planning legislation a pub can be lawfully converted to a shop without further planning permission.
Cllr Roger Hickford, who campaigned with and supported SToPiT, said: “The pub was a central focus of the village and closure has been a real blow for local people.
“It is incredibly frustrating that the national planning rules leave district councils with little power to tackle this problem where there is no change of ownership.
“I will now be submitting a notice of motion for the next council meeting to make sure it is highlighted further and fully support us lobbying the government for changes that will help communities in the same situation as Hildersham.”
Cllr Trisha Bear, local member for Hildersham on SCDC, added: “Pubs in small communities are a place to meet and socialise.
“It is inevitable that some pubs will close but more protection needs to be in place for rural communities where only one pub is left.
“At the moment councils do not have effectual power to support communities and we need a change from government.”
Mark Logan, chairman of SToPiT, said the group will continue to exist and support SCDC in lobbying the Government.
He said they had spoken to Ms Moroney about buying the pub, but she wanted £500,000, and The Cock Inn in Castle Camps, which has three bedrooms compared to the Pear Tree’s one, a larger restaurant and garden and a turnover of £180,000 a year, was for sale at under £400,000.
“The Pear Tree is an empty shell as they’ve ripped out the bar and the cellar and they want twice what it’s worth,” he said.
“We could build another pub in Hildersham for under £200,000.
“We will be supporting SCDC as this could happen anywhere now.
“We will continue the campaign to get this loophole closed.”
SCDC leader Cllr Ray Manning has asked for a report to be presented to the planning policy and localism portfolio holder Cllr Pippa Corney.
“I sympathise with people in Hildersham who want their local pub to be retained as at the moment national planning policy and the government’s community right to bid legislation are not operating hand-in-hand,” he said.
“The Pear Tree has highlighted the need for a change by Government so assets like pubs, which are at the heart of communities, cannot be changed with such ease.
“No one wants a building to sit empty if a business isn’t viable, but if a community has highlighted an asset such as a pub as being vital to them, the national planning rules should provide more protection.
“We need to press home the need for communities to have more say by speaking to ministers, local MPs and the Local Government Association.”
Sir Jim Paice MP lambasted SCDC for not stopping the change, saying: “In my view, local pubs play an important role in community life.
“I was therefore disappointed to hear that, despite the considerable efforts of Hildersham residents, the council has refused to act to save the Pear Tree.
“The Government’s community empowerment agenda, of which ACVs form a part, is intended to increase protection for important local amenities such as the Pear Tree.
“The whole point of localism is to enable local people to have their say.
“In this case, the residents of Hildersham made their view clear but were ignored.”
However, SCDC maintain that they could not have stopped the change as it has already happened and that Sir Jim is mistaken.
“An Article Four Directive would not have stopped it as it is already a shop in planning terms,” said a SCDC spokesman.
Ms Moroney had said the pub was not viable and that few of the objectors supported the pub when it was open and it had been making a loss for over a year.
“The bottom line is that there are around 20 lovely people in the village and a few from surrounding villages who did their best to support the pub, however, it was not enough,” she said.
“Most of the people who are now objecting never came to the pub or came very infrequently.
“There just wasn’t enough support.
“We spent over £25,000 on refurbishing the pub and upgrading it.
“We started off with a consultant chef. We then hired an excellent chef with 40 years’ experience who had trained at the Savoy Hotel and a former lecturer at Cambridge Regional College.
“He cooked the Pear Tree food for a year.
“Unfortunately these and our other efforts were not enough to encourage the villagers to come to The Pear Tree in sufficient numbers.
“After a promising start which lasted about four and a half months, we started losing money.
“I supported the pub financially for a year in the hope that it would pick up, but it didn’t and I just cannot continue to do that.
“And I don’t understand why anyone would expect me to.
“It is, after all, a business and must therefore make a profit.”
For all the latest news see today’s (Thursday, January 16) Echo.