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Change the law to save our pubs
And, as reported by the Daily Echo, the Bittern in Thornhill Park Road is set to join them on the list of pub closures, and is set to become a McDonald’s takeaway.
Despite the best efforts of community campaigners, who were backed by Itchen MP John Denham, it now appears to be a matter of time before the popular watering hole closes its doors for the last time – but that is a scenario council chiefs want to stop.
Labour city council leader Simon Letts, whose Bitterne ward contains the Bittern and who is a member of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), is the brains behind a plan giving councils and communities more power over the closure of pubs.
He wants Government Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to change planning rules under the Sustainable Communities Act, meaning any proposed conversion of a pub must go before a local authority first.
The Bittern is under threat
Currently planning laws dictate that pubs can be turned into fast food takeaways or supermarkets without planning permission, allowing for a pub to change use within a short space of time. There is also no requirement for the owners of pubs or the firms moving in to take over the site to consult with communities.
Cllr Letts hopes the Government can change that by making sure planning permission and community consultation are both required before any pub is converted.
In effect, that means that if plans to turn a pub into a convenience store come forward, meetings with the community to gauge their reaction and the value of the pub to the area will have to be held. The application would also go before the planning committee and it would decide on whether it gets the go-ahead or not.
However the move is not designed to allow the council to fund pubs that are not financially viable.
If pubs are not viable then that will be made clear through the consultation process, and will have a bearing on the council’s decision on planning permission.
Cllr Letts said: “This is a practical proposal to allow us to have a say in whether local pubs get to close or not close. At the moment we are losing several pubs in the city each year.
“It is a way in which we can improve the situation for communities in Southampton so when a pub is in danger we have the power to object and to have a public forum and allow local members to decide whether that is the right thing to happen in their community.
“If the community were really, really against something, it would have to be up to the companies applying to the council to convince the community.”
Backing him, Labour Cabinet member for communities Cllr Satvir Kaur said: “They can and do make up the fabric of our streets and communities.
“They bring us together over the pub quiz, to hear your mate play guitar badly or for a first date, which is probably where I’m going wrong.”
Of course the success of their plans lies in the hands of Mr Pickles, a Conservative minister in Westminster.
The Castle in Midanbury, which was converted into a Tesco earlier this year.
But they have been encouraged by his previous pledges to increase “localism” and allow for “greater local decision-making in planning”.
Council chiefs want to work alongside CAMRA and campaigning group Local Works to get further support for their motion from other authorities, and intend to speak to other councils in the region to gain further momentum for their campaign.
CAMRA’s Rob Whatley believes that, if successful, it could have a significant impact on the pub scene in Southampton.
He said: “I think it will certainly help because one of the issues is that a lot of the companies that own the pubs are in financial difficulties and they are trying to raise money any way they can.
“Quite often a lot of people who might want to take on a pub aren’t given a chance because the owner has decided to sell and that might not take very long. And that leads to a very unequal market, because on the one hand a pub can be closed down and converted quite easily, but if someone wanted to set a pub up it would be very hard.”
While Enterprise Inns, which owns a number of pubs in Hampshire, declined to comment on the proposals, Punch Taverns, which owns 18 pubs in and around Southampton, did respond to them.
A spokesman said “We agree that pubs are valuable community assets, which is why we spent £45m investing in our properties last year, with another £50m earmarked for this year. Where we do sell properties, nine out of ten remain as pubs.
“We have worked with a number of community groups and local people who have bought pubs and will continue to do so. The provisions of the Localism Act already support and help communities if they want to purchase properties in this way and we would urge those communities to investigate the tools already in place.”
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