[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I am pleased to have secured this important debate and to see once again some of my pub supporting and friendly colleagues, who come from both sides of the House. It is important to remember that the matter affects each and every one of us as constituency MPs. We are all doing our best to preserve and support the great British pub, a wonderful institution that is of considerable importance to our communities.
I am delighted once again to have the opportunity to be debating the subject with my hon. Friend the Minister, who is responsible for community pubs in his role at the Department for Communities and Local Government. I hope that, like me, he sees the debate as being part of a conversation between us and the all-party save the pub group, one that will continue during this Parliament. That conversation may sometimes happen here in Westminster Hall and sometimes in parliamentary or ministerial offices, but due to our genuine interest I hope that it will continue sometimes to happen in the pub.
We had a well-attended debate a few weeks ago, in which we heard that the British pub faces many problems. There is the problem of the pub codes of practice and their distortion of the beer tie; there is the problem of the supermarket ban, with unreasonably low prices and below-cost selling; and there is a problem with various aspects of regulation. All those factors cause real concern.
What is sometimes lost in our debates, perhaps deliberately so, is the one thing could save the British pub, almost at the stroke of a pen but certainly at the stroke of the parliamentary printing press as many of these problems are covered by secondary legislation, and that is to strengthen planning law to recognise the importance that pubs play in our communities. At the moment, that is not happening.
We are all aware of what successive Governments have done, and I make no criticism here. I pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who also took a genuine interest in the subject. It is easy to say positive things about the importance of the pub, but until that is recognised in a meaningful way within the planning system, many of our efforts in trying to protect and save our local pubs will be wasted.
At the moment, we have the extraordinary situation that a free-standing pub—one that is clearly not connected to another building—that is not listed or in a conservation area and that has no other protection under planning law, can be demolished overnight. That can be done without planning permission, never mind consulting the community, something that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) highlighted in his Protection of Local Services (Planning) Bill, a private Member’s Bill that was supported by the all–party group. I shall speak a little more about that later, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to contribute to the debate.
Similarly, it is perfectly legal under the planning system, overnight and without any consultation with the community, to turn the local pub into a Tesco, a betting shop, a restaurant or a café—businesses that do not have the same community function and that are not a community hub in the same way that a pub is.
Does my hon. Friend agree that large supermarket chains are using pub buildings as a way of getting around the regulations that require them to have permission for an additional store. Often the pubs are quite large, bigger than something that a supermarket would otherwise require permission for.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I call it predatory purchasing. The supermarkets deliberately target pubs because they are a soft touch. The Government have said that they want to be a pro-pub Government, and I am proud of that, but they also want to be a decentralising Government who believe in localism. As part of that, they will have to show that such things are not acceptable without the community being consulted. That is happening because the planning system is weak, and Tesco and the other supermarkets know that and exploit it.
The scandal goes on. Pubs are being closed every week that are not only viable in terms of making a profit, but are successful and profitable at the time of closure. Those closures often happen against the wishes of the small businessmen and women who run the pub and making a living from it. That is a scandal, and it must be stopped.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his ongoing work on the matter. Does he agree that an examination of the planning regulations and their potential weakness should extend to those bowling greens that are connected to pubs? Many are being sold off without consultation, leaving many bowlers with no place to practise their prize sport.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I give an example of the problem from my constituency. A successful pub was recently threatened with closure because a local housing charity had targeted it specifically for housing. Thankfully, the pub and the community won the day, and the pub was saved. The pub was targeted because the charity saw a loophole in the planning system. It must be closed. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter; it is an important point that we must press.
I thank my hon. Friend and near constituency neighbour. He is absolutely right. As with all successful pub closure campaigns, I congratulate him and his community on having the courage to fight that campaign. Sadly, given our weak planning laws, such campaigns are often not successful.
The Government have said that they will take action on restrictive covenants, which I warmly welcome. I am sure that the Minister will say a little more about the Government’s proposals, but I understand that a consultation will be held this year. I hope—I have no doubt—that it will lead to the abolition of this extraordinary practice, whereby the owner of a pub, whether it is a brewery or pub company, can slap on a covenant that says that it must never be a pub again, with the community having no say on the matter. It is absurd. It is anti-competitive and anti-community, and it must be outlawed.
I bring to the Minister’s attention one of the other many tricks used. I call it the restrictive covenant by the back door. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) was lucky in his campaign, but we often see pub companies or individuals deliberately choosing to sell the pub for non-pub use even though they have received viable market-value offers from those who wish to continue running the pub and serving the community. There is nothing to stop that, but the effect is the same. The community loses its pub even when someone wants to buy it.
We have some wonderful small breweries, and some fabulous small pub companies are popping up, with real entrepreneurs taking on pubs throughout the country in small numbers. It would be a far greater number if the larger companies were not able to ignore offers from the community or other pub companies. That problem must be addressed. In Otley, in my constituency, there was a pub called The Woolpack, which had served the community for many years and had considerable historical merit. It was sold for non-pub use even though there were companies that wanted to buy it and run it as a pub. The decision to end that pub’s service to the community was entirely taken in the boardroom of a company, which must be wrong. Often, such decisions are made even when the company or individual who wants to continue to run the pub puts in a higher bid. That is because an organisation deliberately wants to shut that pub—in the same way as restrictive covenants—so as to lessen the competition for the other pubs that it may have in that area.
My hon. Friend hits on a key point. Very often, profitable pubs run into such a situation. Does he not agree that there are many pubs that are not economically viable, and, in some cases, they probably need to shut. The real scandal, however, is the closure of pubs that are profitable and could have a long-term future. The key issue is that local communities should have a say as to whether such buildings are razed to the ground.
I thank my hon. Friend and look forward to continuing to work with him on this issue. I know that our hon. Friend the Minister is listening to us. Let me be clear that no one is suggesting that those genuinely failed pubs—those pubs that cannot make a living and no longer have a community that wants them—should not change. No one is even suggesting that there should be significant barriers stopping their conversion or redevelopment. I want to make that absolutely clear to the Minister, and I hope to convince him that there are ways in which we can do that by, for example, putting halts in the planning process. My hon. Friend is right. There is only one way in which we can determine whether a community wants a pub and that is to ask the people who live in that community. Very few councils do that. As I will discuss later, the issue of viability is very often not established, or it is simply established because the current owner claims that the pub is unviable.
The Minister may say that pub campaigners can sometimes be a little over-sentimental. As a member of the save the pub group, I refute that charge. Why do we not say more about pubs also being small businesses that actually make an incredibly valuable contribution to the national economy, which is, of course, eroded every time a pub closes? The tax-take from those pubs is also eroded every time one closes. Pubs are small businesses, with an individual, a couple or a family earning a living and employing people in the local economy. The new economics foundation has suggested that twice as much as every pound spent in a pub goes directly to the local economy, compared with half of that for every pound spent in a supermarket. Often, as we have said before, supermarkets are replacing pubs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He hits on a very good point there. My local pub, The Coach and Horses, in Honley village has just reopened having been closed for three months. My hon. Friend was right to talk about the employment opportunities. The pub employs bar staff, the manager, the entertainment that it is bringing in on Friday and Saturday night, the cleaning staff and the catering staff. Whenever we hear about a small supermarket moving into an area, people always talk about the employment opportunities. We need to emphasise the employment opportunities that pubs can bring to rural villages and remote areas. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend on making that point.
I thank my hon. Friend and fellow Yorkshire MP for making that point. It is easy for people in planning applications—I have seen it as I am sure have other hon. Members—to present the pub as something that is of the past and that is no longer wanted by communities. They deliberately ignore points such as employment opportunities. They suggest that a business that has served a community for 50 years or even 100 years and contributed to the economy should be replaced by a set of flats that will make a one-off profit for a business, or a supermarket that will do things in a different way. It is so important that we do not lose sight of that point.
Let me outline the framework for pubs in planning law and why, sadly, pubs have so little protection. Planning policy statement 4, which applies to villages and local centres—already it is rather ambiguous because there are pubs that are in areas that do not qualify—replaced planning policy statement 7. That was a change made by the previous Government in December 2009 and was a cause for concern. PPS 7 was stronger and made direct reference to supporting the retention of local facilities such as public houses. The new policy simply refers to planning applications affecting shops and leisure uses, including public houses or services in local centres.
The Government are thinking of replacing that planning policy statement with a new framework. I urge the Minister, who is a genuine supporter of pubs, to ensure that when that statement comes out it includes a direct reference to the importance of public houses so that councils can take that into account. Without such a reference, councils will not do that.
My hon. Friend will be aware that in a former life, I was on the planning panel of Leeds city council. That was exactly the problem that the panel faced with a pub in his constituency that was closed down. Does he not agree that to give councillors that extra power, such a reference is exactly what is needed in legislation?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that point. I was coming on to that exact case. To some extent he is right, but the unfortunate reality is that councils can, as things stand, adopt pro-pub planning policies. The scandal of that case is that Leeds city council did not even seem to realise that it could and should have adopted such a policy.
That is the case, yes, but there is another issue that relates to The Summercross pub in my constituency. I had a phone call from a legal officer at Leeds city council who said to me, “What is this Sustainable Communities Act and what relevance does it have to pubs?” Clearly, there is a large job to do in communicating with councils. Some councils are good—I will mention them in a minute—but some do not appreciate what is already there at the moment that could make a difference. Existing legislation does not go far enough, but if the guidance were clearer, it could make a difference.
Let me briefly relate the sad story of The Summercross pub, because it is a classic example of the problem here. The Summercross was one of my local pubs in Otley. It had been a pub since 1871 and it was the only pub of that name in the UK, so it represented a little bit of British history. It had gone through the usual story of changes of ownership and successive tenants. Every time the pub did well, the rent went up. Rather ominously, it was bought by a London-based developer, but the tenant who came in did a very good job of turning around the pub and making it successful and profitable again. It attracted the customers back by serving excellent local independent beer. However, a deal was struck over his head, initially without his and his wife’s knowledge, to sell the pub to a Leeds-based developer for a very large profit—something like £1 million for that one sale. The London-based developer, Phase 7 Properties, had bought the pub as a predatory purchase, seeing it as a potential development opportunity because of the weakness in planning law. Scandalously, the landlord and landlady were give a few weeks to clear out of The Summercross, which was their home as well as a small business, a community pub and a popular live music venue.
A campaign was launched to try to save The Summercross. However, the London-based developers, who went off with £1 million in their pockets after owning the pub for just two years, said, “Sorry guv, nothing to do with us any more. You’ve got to speak to Chartford Homes in Leeds.” Then Chartford Homes said, “Well, it’s nothing to do with us, because we didn’t close the pub, but actually now we want to build houses on it.”
Then a battle ensued. The community conducted a vigorous and well run campaign, and they managed to fight off the first planning application. They obtained figures to show that the pub was profitable and viable, and so the first application was kicked out. However Chartford Homes was cunning and, frankly, it had an awful lot of money—£1 million more than was clearly sensible—tied up in the pub. So it transferred the ownership, or at least proposed at that stage that the pub be taken over by a company called Westwood Care, its sister company with shared directors. Westwood Care then came back with the wonderful, cuddly proposal to turn this historic building into a care home.
Sadly, that proposal went to the plans panel of Leeds city council. What happened next fits exactly with what my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) has talked about. The members of the plans panel in Leeds felt that they could not refuse that application in planning law. I am afraid that the main reason was that Leeds city council has no policies in place that recognise the importance of pubs, so it is Leeds city council’s fault that The Summercross closed.
The actions of Leeds city council can be compared with those of Bradford city council. Just up the road from Otley is Ben Rhydding, a suburb of Ilkley. Bradford city council stood by the community there and was prepared to take on the owner of the Wheatley, the local pub—in that case, it was Punch Taverns. The council won and the Wheatley is now a popular and thriving pub again. But Leeds city council is frankly clueless when it comes to the protection of pubs and planning policy, and it needs to address that failing.
It was incredibly frustrating during the planning process to hear the chair of that plans panel whispering to officers, “Pub viability is not a planning consideration, is it? We can’t consider that.” The chair also said, “The only planning protection policies that exist are to do with rural villages, aren’t they?” Both those statements are incorrect and both were made in what is supposed to be a quasi-legal setting.
Pub campaigners and other members of the local community in Otley saw planning officers present the developers’ own proposal. It was a PowerPoint presentation from the developers. The word that local people used when they saw that presentation was, “Corruption.” They said, “Surely this can’t be right? It’s corruption.” I said, “No, it isn’t corruption. There is no corruption there.” However, it is the farcical reality of the planning process, which means that a set of planning officers can present exactly what the developer wants to do and make some comments on it. And what does the community get? They get three minutes to make a few comments. I am afraid that the decision to close The Summercross ignored the reality that it was a profitable pub. The figures to that effect were presented. Instead, the members of the plans panel said, “There’s nothing we can do in planning law to stop that.” I am afraid that that sort of thing is happening up and down the country.
I want to issue a challenge to my hon. Friend the Minister today. I appreciate that this is a difficult issue in planning law. However, we all agree that there is some moral ownership of a local pub by the local community. Surely, if we believe in everything that we say, there must be such moral ownership. As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty has said, the community must have a right to have a say over the future of its local pub, especially when the pub is successful and, as in the case of The Summercross, other companies are knocking on the door and phoning me to say that they want to take on the pub but are unable to do so because of the grubby deals that have gone on between two developers behind the backs of the landlord and the local community.
The London-based developers, Phase 7 Properties Ltd, owned The Summercross and allowed a tenant to run it for two years. I do not think that it ever visited the pub themselves, which it had an agent to run. Does it have the complete right, as the legal owner of the building, to do what it wants over the heads of the community that, as I have said, must have some moral ownership? I say that it does not have that right. That situation must be recognised, in a realistic way, in the planning process.
It will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that I will discuss the Localism Bill very shortly. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows full well, because I have written to him about it already and will continue to do so, that Bill is a huge opportunity and the save the pub group must also see it in that way. It is a huge opportunity to address these issues that we and our local councillors face day by day. We find that our views, expressed as elected representatives and councillors, are rejected. Otley town council objected to the closure of The Summercross pub, but its objection was regarded by the plans panel as not being remotely of interest. So the Localism Bill is an opportunity, and I will go on to say that it is a positive thing but it needs to do an awful lot more.
There are other issues. One that I want to touch on briefly is the issue of pub interiors. I was very lucky and privileged to have been asked to launch the new book by the Campaign for Real Ale, “Yorkshire’s Real Heritage Pubs”, at the stunning Garden Gate pub in Hunslet, which is in Leeds. Frankly, that pub is only there because of the campaigns by Leeds CAMRA and other people, and because the wonderful Leeds Brewery has now taken the incredibly courageous decision to buy it and make it its fourth pub as it expands its portfolio. The Garden Gate pub is not in my constituency. It is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and I would be delighted to take my hon. Friend the Minister there at some stage, because it is a stunning example of pub interior design that has been preserved.
The reality is that only 2% of pubs in Yorkshire and the Humber region retain their original interiors. Those pub interiors are part of our heritage. We would not see our castles or our stately homes being vandalised and demolished in that way. There has been some great work done by CAMRA and English Heritage, operating together, on this issue. However, there needs to be clearer advice from the Government, including from the Minister’s Department, about what councils can and should do in terms of listing pubs and about the criteria for listing pubs. Sometimes, even though something is clearly worth preserving, it does not actually tick the right boxes. I hope that that is another conversation that my hon. Friend the Minister and I can have, perhaps over a pint of Leeds Best in the Garden Gate or one of the many other pubs featured in CAMRA’s national and regional guides.
I have said that I would discuss the good councils as well as the bad, and it is incredibly important that I do so. My hon. Friend the Minister rightly said that councils have a key role. Neither I nor the other members of the save the pub group are saying that the Government can or should solve all those problems. I also want to make it clear that we are not saying that the Government should impose everything. As is suggested in the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty, it is more a case of giving local councillors the powers, so that they do not feel that they simply have to give the nod to plans that they know, in their heart of hearts, are wrong.
There are some very progressive councils. At the moment, 40% of councils make specific mention of retaining pubs in their local planning policies, which is impressive. In addition, 20% of councils do not specifically mention pubs but none the less have strong policies on protecting community facilities in general. However, 40% of councils are bad in terms of providing protection for pubs. They have no policy whatsoever that would assist communities to retain pubs. I am ashamed, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey is also ashamed, that Leeds city council is indeed one of the 40% of councils that do not have policies to protect pubs. There are many examples around Leeds and the surrounding area of how the council has simply let things happen, and we have lost important community facilities as a result.
Merton borough council has a very positive policy on pubs:
“The Council will not permit the redevelopment or change of use of established public houses to other uses except where:
(i) The applicant can show that the public house is no longer economically viable
(ii) The applicant can show that reasonable attempts have been made to market the site as a public house [and]
(iii) There is alternative provision within the local area.”
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned on many occasions the lack of “viability” as being one of the criteria by which community pubs are allowed to close. Does he agree that there is a whole raft of legislation that should be enabled to ensure that, first, “viability” is enhanced and, secondly, that we do not hide behind “viability” as an excuse? For example, live music in pubs is known to increase takings by about 40% on average, and I hope that my recent “Rock the House” project goes some way to increasing awareness of that. However, does he agree that the Minister must consider the whole raft of licensing issues that go along with planning issues, to ensure that the concept of “viability” does not become something to hide behind?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work with “Rock the House”, which the all-party save the pub group formally backs. We look forward to working with him, and to getting as many MPs as possible behind that initiative. He is absolutely right that licensing is another issue and, as the Minister has cross-departmental responsibilities, I know that he will be having conversations with Ministers in all Departments that deal with pub-related issues. The licensing regime has certainly become over-bureaucratic and too expensive, and he and I strongly agree that some of the changes that were made a few years ago have been detrimental to the encouragement of live music. The wonderful annual Otley folk festival, which largely takes place in Otley’s public houses, is a celebration not only of folk music but of the public house, and is a great example of the harmony that is there.
Returning to the councils, Oxfordshire and Mid Sussex councils have positive policies, but it would help if the Government provided more guidance, perhaps on what the policies should say. At the end of my speech, I will challenge the Minister by saying that I hope that that can happen in the new national framework.
Now it is time to talk about the Localism Bill, which I am sure we all support, and which sounds like the sort of thing for which many of us have been campaigning for many years. It is the kind of thing that can, and surely must, be used to stop this scandal of profitable, successful pubs being closed against the wishes of the local community. Will it, though? I know that the Minister will talk about the proposed community right-to-buy scheme, and let me make it clear that the all-party group warmly welcomes that proposal and looks forward to considering its details and to working, hopefully, with the Minister and his team to ensure that the scheme works. Unfortunately, although the proposal is positive, it will not have a substantial effect in preventing closures of profitable and wanted pubs, first and simply because unless the Government finally get rid of the absurd loopholes, whereby a pub can be demolished or turned into a café, restaurant, betting shop, payday loan shop or supermarket without planning permission, a huge number of pubs will still be at the whim of the companies making those decisions. I therefore urge the Minister to close those gaps not only on demolition but on change of use, because otherwise there will not be many pubs for communities to try to buy.
Secondly, I think that the Minister has to accept that what is in the Bill is not a community right to buy; it is a right to try. I ask the Minister, again, to consider the model in Scotland, which contains a genuine right to buy. Here, there is a right to put together a bid, to trigger a delay—a moratorium—but there is not even genuine encouragement for the owners, let alone the obligation that I would like to see. Without that, how many communities will realistically be able to raise perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds from share options, fundraising or local businesses, if at the end of that period—the length of which the Minister has not yet specified; CAMRA has suggested a very sensible six months—the owner might say, “Well, actually, I’m going to sell to Tesco anyway, for slightly more”? As we have already said, the pub company might want to get rid of the pub, because of competition between its pubs in the area. If the proposal is genuine, that issue has to be considered, because otherwise not many pubs will be saved and the closure of profitable pubs against the community’s wishes will not be prevented, which is surely something that the Minister and the Government want to prevent.
What should be done? I want to continue, and I want the save the pub group to continue, to be part of an ongoing dialogue with the Minister. We seek to help, as we were invited to do by the previous pubs Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). We were happy to meet with him and his civil servants. Some of our proposals clearly need to be looked at, and they might not necessarily do what we think they will, but we want to work through them and be part of that conversation to get to the end result that I think we all want, which is to give viable, profitable pubs some protection in planning law.
So, what should be done? The Government have to commit to closing the loophole on demolition, and I have been encouraged by what the Minister has said. There have been positive conversations during the passage of the Protection of Local Services (Planning) Bill between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty, and also with me. I am encouraged that the Minister has suggested that he and the Government are minded to stop the scandal of pubs being demolished, but I have to use a phrase that has been used with me—do not be a half-a-job Harry. I know that the Minister would not want to be one, but if the demolition loophole is closed and nothing is done about people being able to continue to turn a pub into a Tesco, a betting shop or a restaurant overnight without planning permission, only a small gap will be plugged and the other scandal will not be stopped.
Given that an estimated 39 pubs a week are closing, and that CAMRA estimates that about a third of those are demolished, we have an urgent problem. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s support for my private Member’s Bill, but does he agree that the best route for offering protection for pubs would be for the Government to adopt an element of that Bill in the Localism Bill?
I absolutely agree. That is essential if the right to buy is not to appear tokenistic. I stress, however, that the issue is not only about demolition, and I urge the Minister to stop it being okay to turn the Red Lion or the White Swan into a Tesco, just because a deal is cooked up between a distant unaccountable pub company and Tesco headquarters. That cannot be right, because the community, never mind the small business person, has no say over whether it wants the pub to continue.
There is a separate use class order, A4, for pubs, bars and other licensed premises, but it is currently perfectly allowable to change that to one of various other use class orders—A1, A2 or A3, I think—and the Government could, very simply, stop those conversions without planning permission. I am not talking about when a pub is no longer viable or wanted and it might be a good idea to turn it into a solicitors office. All the Government have to do is to say that there are no conversions from A4 to anything without planning permission being obtained through the normal process. If the pub is no longer viable or wanted, it will change use within a reasonable and normal time period, as with all planning applications, but the community should at least have the right to comment.
I briefly wish to mention the wonderful work of Pub is the Hub and the Plunkett Foundation. No one suggests that it is possible for the Government to provide huge amounts of money to back up the community right-to-buy scheme, but there has to be better and clearer Government advice about the realities of setting up a community co-operative and putting a bid together.
I would be interested if the Minister told us what progress the asset transfer unit has made on coming up with a genuine package of guidance and support for communities that wish to do that.
My big idea, which I have shared with the Minister, is a moratorium. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I have taken the Government’s idea for a moratorium and extended it. It would be possible and desirable to have a moratorium before any permanent change of use or demolition. Six months would be a reasonable period and would allow us to see whether other companies or individuals wanted to buy the pub. It is a scandal that there are often companies knocking at the door that want to take on the pub, but they are simply not allowed to do so.
As the save the pub group has consistently said since its formation, two things should happen in this six-month period. First, there needs to be a genuine, independent community consultation, which must be carried out by the local authority, as the planning authority. Some developers put surveys through people’s doors with leading questions—we are all politicians, so we know about leading questions—and the answers are presented as the community’s view. People are asked, “Do you think Otley needs more care homes?” or “Do you think old people should have a good quality of life?”, and when they say yes, the developer says, “There you go. Everyone wants a care home instead of a pub.” There must be genuine consultation to establish the will of the local community and the need for the pub.
There should also be a proper, independent viability test of the pub. Some councils have the courage to carry out such tests, although it is mainly rural councils at the moment. In the case of The Summercross, the developers’ agents prepared a huge glossy document and presented it to the plans panel, saying that it proved that the pub was not viable. How can someone prove that a pub is not viable when it was trading profitably in the years before? That is absolutely absurd. There must be an independent viability study, which should, again, be carried out by the local authority, as the planning authority. There is also the CAMRA viability study, so a model exists, and I hope the Minister will consider suggesting it in guidance to local authorities when they put their policies in place. In that respect, I hope that Leeds city council and others will finally get round to doing that, so that 40% of councils are no longer without policies on pubs.
My moratorium could work in two ways. The Minister and I have discussed this, and I realise that he has views about how the moratorium could work, but I want to give him two other suggestions. The six-month moratorium could be part of the forthcoming national planning policy strategy, which could suggest what should happen in the case of conversions from A3. It could also be covered in supplementary guidance to councils that are putting together supplementary planning policies.
Another suggestion that I have already raised with the Minister, and which I know would take some work, would be to look at whether we need a separate definition of a community pub and whether such a definition is possible. We would need a proper study to see whether we could separate community pubs, which clearly have a community function, from a lot of bars and nightclubs, which do not. It would be exciting if that was possible, because it could lead to a different rateable value. As one of my colleagues said, community pubs sometimes, but often do not, get sufficient payback from their community work and the community role that they play.
I am delighted to support that point. All too often, the community pubs my hon. Friend is referring to are the last standing community facility in the local area. All too often when I am in an area, I will see the former post office, the former dairy and the former school house. It is right to separate community pubs from the rest of the trade because they have an additional role to play in the market.
I thank my hon. Friend. I hope that he will help me, CAMRA and the Institute for Public Policy Research, which is looking at this issue, to see whether that would be possible. Such a step would make it easier in planning law to do some of the things that we want. I hope the Minister and his team will seriously consider that point and that it will be part of the dialogue we have.
Even without such a change, it is possible, as I said, to require any change of use from A4 or any demolition to involve a moratorium that includes the three things I mentioned: allowing the pub to continue where there is a genuine business and making sure, if not requiring, that the genuine, independent market value be considered; holding community consultation; and carrying out a viability test.
Finally on the suggestions from me and the save the pub group, let me return to pub listings. We still have a few wonderful pub interiors, and I am glad to say that there are a number in London, which it is worth going to see. They are important to tourists, who will walk into a pub such as The Mitre and realise that such things are unique to this country. We should be proud of that.
I, too, received a copy of the wonderful book on Yorkshire’s heritage pubs, but was my hon. Friend, like me, not a little surprised that there were not more entries from Tadcaster, given that it is the most prominent brewing town in the country, as all Members present will agree? I hope that he will raise that with his friends at CAMRA the next time he sees them.
All I can say is that CAMRA has strict criteria. As my hon. Friend well knows, anyone travelling up the A1(M) will come to a sign pointing to Tadcaster one way and Otley the other. One is a famous pub town and the other is a hugely famous Yorkshire brewing and pub town. There are some synergies there, and it is probably appropriate for me to visit Tadcaster to see some of its pubs for myself.
As the Minister will know, councils have the power to compile local lists of historically important buildings. At the moment, however, that power is toothless because it affords no extra protection. Will the Minister find a way to ensure that buildings that are put on these local lists by the good councils that recognise the importance of pubs such as The Whitelocks in Leeds can be protected in the planning process? It is great to have them listed, but listing seems to achieve nothing in the planning process.
Those are the main recommendations that the save the pub group is making for now as part of the conversation we are having. We will have a lively debate about the right way forward, but there is one thing the Minister and the Government must not fall into the trap of doing. I sit on the coalition Government Benches and I support what the Government are trying to do. Like the Minister, I do not want more regulation, and I certainly do not want more regulation on pubs in the licensing system—in fact, I want to see less. However, it is quite wrong to suggest that giving communities the right to have a say over their local pubs and the important local services they provide is regulation, because it is not; it is simply about ensuring that there is a proper process to enable communities to have a say. That will not prevent pubs from being converted to alternative and positive uses when their days as a pub are numbered because of the area they are in or the local population.
I agree with the Minister that we want competition and a free market. As everyone in the pub trade and associated trades knows, however, there is no free market, because of the huge distorting impact of the fact that half the pubs in the country are owned by the largest pub companies, which tightly control prices and dictate rents. That is a separate issue, and the Government are looking at it. However, entrepreneurs—the up-and-coming small brewers and small pub companies—are delivering great pubs, but they are not getting access to the market because of the planning system. If the Minister wants genuine competition, as I do, he needs to make it much easier for not only communities but entrepreneurs to get their hands on pubs. At the moment the Government are not saying that.
Of course, the Minister will hear from the pub companies, developers and supermarkets, who want carte blanche to do what they want with the community’s pubs. They will tell him, “You must not do this; it is not in the spirit of the free market. It is anti-competitive. It is regulation.” It is not. The Government have a clear ideological choice. Do they really want to empower communities to have a say over local pubs, or do they want to back the developers, the giant pub companies and the supermarkets, to let them do whatever they like with their pubs? It is as stark as that. I know what I believe in as a localist, a decentraliser and a real fan of pubs, and I hope the Government will choose the right way.
The matter is linked, of course, to that of the big society, which is a huge issue. There has been a lot of coverage of the big society this week. People say it is a concept no one can disagree with: we want more power for communities, and local people doing things for themselves. The issue has been about the costs and whether it is affordable. However, much of the big society can happen without the Government spending a penny, and what I am talking about presents one opportunity for that. If the Government make the right, bold decisions they can stop the closure of profitable pubs happening against the wishes of communities. That surely is the big society at a local level.
I have a few questions for the Minister and, because this is a dialogue, I do not ask him to reply now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall, and for recognising the importance of Burton. As he says it is the home of beer and Britain’s No. 1 brewing town. He talks with some force—and I agree with what he says—about the need to protect our community pubs. Does he also recognise that many brewers and pub companies are trying to reverse the decline of pubs by opening new pubs every day of the week? Marstons in my constituency has just opened The Dapple Grey in Uttoxeter, which is thriving. I was in there a few days ago and it was heaving with people. We need to allow pubs to grow and flourish, and the hon. Gentleman’s viability test is the most important element of that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. We work closely together, because the all-party save the pub group works closely with the all-party beer group, of which he is the vice-chairman, and we look forward to continuing with that. He is right to say that viability is a key issue. He is right to say that some pubs are opening; but sometimes that is used as an excuse to close other pubs that owners or pub companies want to dispose of because of their huge indebtedness, some of which they need to claw back to please their shareholders and foreign creditors.
The issue that the hon. Gentleman raised is important, but there was a case in Otley where a brand new pub opened—a wonderful little free house called the Old Cock—because it was not possible for Lee and Linda, who run it, to get one of the pubs owned by the pub company. They had to set a pub up in what used to be a café, and now offer a wonderful range of independent beers that they could not afford to buy through the pub company. That is why I say to the Minister that there is no free market or way to do that. The tragedy is that The Woolpack, which I have already mentioned, is a mere 50 yards from the Old Cock. If the system worked, Lee and Linda would have bought it, and would be operating that free house from its wonderful historic building. Instead, it has closed and is being converted. The Old Cock is a brand new pub. All I am saying is that we need to assess viability and first ask communities whether pubs are still wanted. That would answer all the problems that we agree exist.
As to my questions to the Minister, I want to nail him down—not today—on whether he agrees with, and whether he and the Government will commit to, the principle that no profitable and wanted pub should be permanently closed against the wish of the community, without that community having any chance of a say on its future. To me, that is the overriding fundamental principle that we must get to as a localist and decentralising Government—and, hopefully, a pro-pub Government. I also ask the Minister to provide an assurance today, if he can, that the Government are committed to extending planning control to cover the demolition of pubs, as he has suggested he is minded to do. Will he also seriously consider doing the obvious thing and making an A4 use class order subject to planning permission for any change of use? That would make a big difference and stop conversions to Tescos, betting shops, restaurants and cafés with no community right to consult.
Will the Minister consider that the forthcoming national policy framework should include not only the idea that retaining pubs is important—it must do that, and I am sure he will ensure that it does—but the idea of a six-month moratorium? That could say, as guidance rather than diktat, that there should be a six-month period to allow other people to buy the pub and allow for the viability test and the independent community consultation. Will he seriously consider strengthening the right to buy, at the very least to prevent an owner unreasonably refusing a bid from a community? Indeed, in my opinion that should also cover a bid from a small brewery such as Wharfebank brewery in my constituency, which has just taken on its first pub. Perhaps the Minister will consider that and work with us to try to strengthen it and make it meaningful, so that communities feel it is worth putting bids together.
When new schools are built, local authorities must put competition arrangements in place to allow different organisations to bid. Those that bid are given huge amounts of advice and support, to turn enthusiasm into a practical and credible bid. I should be interested to see what support could be offered to those in the community who want to defend the community pub, to turn their enthusiasm towards finding the considerable amounts of money and huge commitment that can be needed to make that a realistic dream.
Order. Before I ask Mr Mulholland to respond to that intervention, I remind the House that we should begin the winding-up speeches at about 3.30. Perhaps I may ask that the hon. Gentleman draw his remarks to a close. If no other hon. Member wants to speak—and no one has indicated a wish to do so—I want to call the shadow Minister at 3.30.
I am, Mrs Main, on my last question, as the Minister will be relieved to hear. I shall send him a copy of my questions, to be helpful.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) must be a mind-reader, because my very last question to the Minister was to be on exactly the point he raised. Does the Minister accept that the Government’s asset transfer unit needs to examine, and considerably expand, the support it offers to communities on the possibility of community buy-outs? That is essential, and if the Localism Bill is to bring about decentralisation, localism and the big society, it must happen. It would not cost a huge amount of money—which we cannot provide—but it can empower communities.
I appreciate your indulgence, Mrs Main, and that of the House. The subject is complicated and it needs to be considered as a whole. As I hope I have explained, there is often scant real protection—and there are many loopholes in it—for the great British pub that we all, including the Minister, purport to support and value. That must be changed. We must stop the scandal of profitable, wanted pubs being closed willy-nilly every week. I am delighted that the Minister, and the Prime Minister, have said that they want the Government to be pro-pub. I shall judge the Government on several issues: the reform of the beer tie, dealing with irresponsible pricing in supermarkets, licensing, regulation and a host of other things. Above all, if the Government are to be pro-pub and save pubs throughout the country, they must put the rhetoric into practice and say, “Yes; not only are pubs important but the planning system will say they are and will reflect that.” They must make sure that finally, communities will get a say when someone says that they want to close the local pub.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this debate on an issue that is important and unites the House. I will start with a confession that I hope hon. Members will not hold against me: I am a teetotaller and rarely frequent local pubs. However, I recognise their importance and the central place that they occupy in many communities around our country. It is a matter of great concern that we have lost so many pubs in recent times and continue to lose them at an alarming rate. Between 25 and 40 pubs around the country close every week, which is a source of great concern.
The hon. Gentleman discussed the need for an ongoing conversation about the issue. It is clearly important to return to that as the new Government develop their policy on this and a range of other matters. I thank him for his work on the issue. Hopefully, his questions to the Minister and the ongoing campaign with which he is involved will have some impact on the Government and enable them to make policies that address the concerns that he outlined.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and was appalled by the scandalous examples that he gave of the sharp practice in which certain unscrupulous, well-heeled business people indulge, leading to the closure of all too many of our community pubs. He is right to say that a local pub is a small business that generates employment opportunities, particularly in the more remote communities in our country. Pubs are a valuable source of local employment.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for making a political point. I am concerned about the implications of the massive cuts that the coalition Government have agreed to implement. In particular, the cuts of up to 30% that local authorities face over the next four years, and cuts in other public services, will lead to the loss of almost 500,000 jobs in the public sector. According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers, at least a further 500,000 in the private sector will lose their jobs as well.
Hon. Members are looking at me; they may be wondering what on earth that has to do with this debate. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I will enlighten them: it has absolutely everything to do with it. If people do not have money in their pockets, the hospitality trade will inevitably suffer as a direct consequence. Not only the hospitality trade but the leisure trade and many other service industries will be detrimentally affected by the cuts supported by Government Members in the Chamber during debates on the comprehensive spending review and other spending matters.
I apologise for missing the beginning of this debate; unfortunately, I was in a Bill Committee, but I came as soon as I could. The hon. Gentleman is making a point about people not having money in their pockets. Is it not therefore even more important that we deal with below-cost selling of alcohol in supermarkets—
Thank you, Mrs Main. They will and they are. It is central to the future viability of pubs around the country that we recognise the implications of other decisions taken by the Government and the Members who vote for them.
Hon. Members have referred to the community right to buy. On the face of it, I have no difficulty with it—indeed, I think that it is probably a good thing and will be beneficial in certain circumstances—but when we scratch the surface, it is a little bit of a pig in a poke, is it not? No funding is attached to it. How will a deprived community where many are unemployed, have modest incomes from low-paid employment or are losing their jobs as a result of the cuts to which I referred be able to exercise the community right to buy if the people there do not have the wherewithal to do so?
Before the election, the Conservative party gave a commitment on the community right to buy that the community would be given the right of first refusal. As I understand it, that commitment has now been withdrawn. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that point.
The hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) made a point about supermarkets. I take the Chair’s guidance that it was not directly related to the topic, but it is important to acknowledge that competition from supermarkets is having a detrimental impact on the viability of community pubs. Again, the Government have failed to take decisive action to tackle the minimum price. They should have gone somewhat further to address it.
The hon. Gentleman discussed the need to strengthen planning legislation. I agree absolutely, but he slightly contradicted himself in the latter part of his speech. In his conclusion, he said that more regulation was not required; I think he said, “We don’t want more regulation.” He will correct me if I am wrong, but he said that stronger planning powers are needed. I agree with him, but what is that if not greater regulation? I accept that regulation can be a force for good in certain circumstances, but over-regulation of the sector can be problematic and a barrier, as can set-up costs, and those issues need to be addressed. I support his aims, but there is perhaps a weakness in his argument. He might consider that, because I know that he feels strongly about the issue and has done a lot of good work to lead the charge on it.
I am also interested to hear the Minister’s comments about the regrettable decision to scrap the Labour Government’s proposed community-owned pubs support programme, which would have provided resources to enable communities to save community pubs from closure.
I was merely referring to the hon. Member for Leeds North West, who discussed the need to strengthen planning laws to give local authorities greater powers over the closure of community pubs. I support him on that. The point that I was making is that strengthening planning powers for local authorities amounts to greater regulation, so in certain circumstances, stronger regulation can be a force for good. It can be beneficial in helping promote the campaign that he is pursuing.
The community-owned pubs programme has been scrapped. The Government had set aside £3.3 million—not a huge sum, but significant—which would have gone a long way towards assisting many community pubs to remain open. The chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation, which was charged with administering the fund, said about the decision to scrap the programme:
“This is devastating news for each community that had hoped to save their local as a co-operative. The government has turned its back on communities that were looking to take more responsibility over their everyday lives.”
It seems that the Government propose to replace a meaningful Government initiative, which would have provided resources for practical action to save a considerable number of community pubs, with a mere information leaflet, which will be distributed to local communities. That is no substitute for a properly funded initiative that would have gone a long way in saving community pubs. That was a mistake, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on it. He is quoted as saying:
“"Pubs don’t want state handouts. The new government is to give local communities new powers to save local pubs.”
However, as I have already pointed out, the Government’s proposed power will be meaningful only in those communities that are relatively well heeled and that therefore have the wherewithal to provide the resources necessary to exercise a community right to buy.
I do not understand the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I have already made the point that the previous Labour Government set up the community-owned pubs support programme, which his Government have scrapped. We did take positive action. I accept that too many pubs closed and that perhaps more could have been done. We can always do more, but we took appropriate steps and ensured that people in the public sector were in employment and that we kept unemployment lower than it would otherwise have been. As I have already said, unless people have unnecessary money in their pockets, the hospitality trade and community pubs will suffer as a direct consequence.
Thank you, Mrs Main. The reality is that we took action. On another point, we took the necessary steps to stop the economy going into a complete tailspin. I repeat the point that I have already made and make no apologies for doing so: people need income in their pockets from employment, and the measures that we took to keep unemployment lower than it would otherwise have been helped ensure that more pubs did not close. I regret to say that this Government’s measures have taken away the direct support by scrapping the community-owned pubs support programme. They are also introducing new powers that only relatively affluent communities will be able to utilise, and are taking economic decisions that will have a much bigger impact on the future viability of community pubs, because unemployment will certainly increase and many more pubs will close as a direct consequence.
I do not want to take up much more time, because that would eat into the time for the Minister’s wind-up speech.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not knowing the names of pubs in Yorkshire. I am a Derby MP and, as I said at the outset of my contribution, I am teetotal and very rarely frequent pubs. Pub names are not one of my strong points. I could not even name too many pubs in Derby, but I recognise the central role that they play in the local community.
I will finish by addressing the comments made about the big society. The notion that, somehow, the nebulous concept of the big society will be the saviour of community pubs and that Ministers on the white charger of the big society will ride to the rescue is, in reality, a fantasy. In my view, the big society is nothing more than a 21st-century version of the Poor Law. If hon. Members view that as the way to protect community pubs, I am sorry but they will be sadly disappointed.
It is an absolute delight and pleasure to serve under you, Mrs Main. I also warmly welcome this debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) on securing it, on the constructive way in which he made the case for assisting community pubs, and on the excellent work that he rightly does as part of the all-party save the pub group. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and the all-party beer group. All such groups and bodies are important players in the conversation that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West has said, we are having, and I promise him that we will continue to have it. It is an important issue. I appreciated the seriousness with which a number of my hon. Friends intervened to raise examples to reinforce a number of my hon. Friend’s legitimate points.
I will say this as gently as I can, but the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), may not have quite caught the mood of the debate to a nicety. It was not a partisan debate. If people want to play it along partisan lines, I can point out that, in 13 years of the previous Government, the situation developed, got worse and not much was done—an initiative 12 weeks before the general election was scant and shoddy recompense.
The hon. Gentleman did, however, remind me of a story about John Costello, the former Irish Prime Minister. He had lost a general election and was driving with his Attorney-General to the presidential palace to hand in his resignation. Their car had to stop at a crossroad, on to which a fight spilled out from a public house. Costello turned to his Attorney-General and said, “Do you know, I’ve never been in a pub in my life,” to which the Attorney-General replied, “Well, if you had, we might not be going to hand in our resignations now.”
I do not have to confess—I think it is well known—that I occasionally use a public house. I have certainly assisted my hon. Friend the Member for Burton in adding to the heaving numbers in a public house in Uttoxeter. I am conscious, from my own constituency as well as from my visits around the country since my appointment, that public houses are a key part of the community. We have vibrant pubs in villages, in suburban areas such as mine, and in inner-city areas, some of which I see when wearing my hat as the Minister with responsibility for the Thames Gateway.
Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West has rightly said, changing circumstances mean that, because pubs are businesses as well as community assets, they will sometimes come under pressure and some will not be sustainable. I have mentioned the east end of London. I visited some old friends in Poplar, where demand for pubs has declined due to the change in the demographic of its population, so not all its pubs are likely to survive. It is important to recognise—I am grateful that my hon. Friend did—that we have to bring that balance into the equation. Equally, I think we have all come across the sort of cynical behaviour whereby viable public houses are sold, sometimes over the heads of the tenants, the landlords or the community. My hon. Friend has quoted a number of examples and, during a Localism Bill Committee sitting, I referred to one in my own constituency. The absentee landlord of The Broomwood pub, in Sevenoaks Way in Orpington, has deliberately run it down so that its value as an asset is diminished, in order then to seek planning permission to turn it into a McDonald’s. I am no more likely to frequent a McDonald’s than the shadow Minister is to frequent a pub. It would certainly not have been a good result for that community, and I think there is common ground between us on that point.
That can also be the case before a pub has even been built. In new developments—a lot of my constituency is new development—space is allocated in the master plan for a community pub. The developers deliberately do not sell it—as is the case with our local brewery, Arkell’s—and they then try to come back and say that the only demand is for additional housing.
My hon. Friend is right. I shall refer to some of the planning proposals we are seeking to make, which I hope will deal with some of those situations.
The Government are seeking to approach the matter against the background of recognising that there must be a sensible balance and that, of course, it is sometimes legitimate to regulate to protect community interests. However, we are also dealing with businesses that need to be kept viable and remain attractive for investment, so as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West said, it is important that we deal with the matter in reasonable and proportionate way that does not build in inflexibilities that might discourage people from investing in the public house trades. We must get the balance right and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution to helping us do that. I would rather deal with the matter in a considered way than engage in grandstanding, because there are opportunities that will come to us.
Let me consider some of the points that were raised. It is worth saying that the current national policy—planning policy statement 4—is perhaps not used as fully as it could be. I accept that point, and outside this Chamber I will happily take up with my hon. Friend ways in which we can ensure that local authorities are made aware of their existing scope. For example, PPS4—planning for sustainable economic growth—asks local authorities proactively to plan and promote competitive town centre environments to support shop services and other things that have small-scale economic uses. That can be taken to include public houses. My hon. Friend indicated that some local authorities are doing that, and I applaud them for doing so. Some of the public houses we have referred to might be in conservation areas or might have a particular merit, such as listing and so on. There are other forms of protection.
When determining applications affecting premises such as pubs, current policy also enables local planning authorities to take into account the importance of the facility to the local community or the economic base in the area. However, I acknowledge that that is not doing enough to slow down the attrition rate of pubs. Therefore, we are determined to simplify the system. My hon. Friend is right: the national planning policy framework is the appropriate vehicle for doing that. Since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, most planning policy has been dictated by guidance rather than through primary legislation, which has tended to be enabling. That is the route we intend to adopt.
We are committed to taking the existing protections that it is appropriate to continue with, simplifying them, amplifying them where appropriate and publishing a comprehensive, single, streamlined national planning policy framework. We are aiming to do that by April 2012. We will start to consult on that later this year, and I very much hope that my hon. Friends and the organisations in their constituencies concerned about the issue of planning and public houses will contribute to the consultation. That will also include planning for community and other leisure facilities. The linkage about encouraging live music, for example, that my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) referred to, is absolutely right. That is why, separately, the Government are proposing to reform the licensing law to make it easier for live entertainment to take place without some of the bureaucratic licensing requirements, particularly in smaller venues. I hope that that will add to viability, which is an important consideration here.
Two matters are important in relation to the Localism Bill. First, we are introducing neighbourhood planning, which will give neighbourhood communities a greater chance to shape their area in planning terms. Communities will be able to set policies for the development of their area, subject to the constraint that what they say must be in general conformity with the overall strategic policies of the local authority’s development plan, and that it will be subject to the national policy set out in the NPPF I referred to. Within those constraints, communities will be able to say what sort of developments—within reason—are acceptable or not acceptable and where. That is an important tool, and I hope it will enable people to have greater protection.
Such an approach will also give communities greater flexibility in expanding. Sometimes that is right because, for example, there might be a demand for additional housing in a village area. Incremental growth is not easy to achieve under the current planning system, so there is a greater pressure to convert the use of a public house to housing. Our proposals will make it easier for a neighbourhood to expand organically and therefore, I hope, to still keep the public house in existence.
The Minister is aware that I have been concerned about these issues for some time. Will he say a little bit more about the legal status of the neighbourhood plan? He will be aware that The Oakdale Arms on Hermitage road, Tottenham is facing demolition in March, and there is real concern that the local community has not been involved.
We have already set out the proposals we are intending to make, and there should be a referendum—an independent check—to make sure that the neighbourhood plan, once it is in place, is in conformity with other policies and that there is support from the community. The details are available in a guide to neighbourhood planning, which is on the Department’s website. When the right hon. Gentleman has looked at that, perhaps other hon. Members who are interested in the matter will have the chance to look at it.
As well as neighbourhood planning, there is the community right to buy. That gives a fair chance for communities to bid to take over assets and facilities that are important to them. Community right to buy is triggered by assets being listed, so it is an important power for community groups to take the initiative to list them. I do not pooh-pooh the community right to buy, as the hon. Member for Derby North did. Potentially, it is a powerful tool, and there are good examples where it has already been taken on. We have published a consultation document setting out details of how that scheme works. It will be underpinned by regulations to deal with the process. That consultation ends on 3 May and as I said, I hope that hon. Members and interested groups will contribute to it. Some of the details that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West fleshed out are exactly the sort of issues I promise him we want to take on board during the consultation.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point about the moratorium, and I would like to consider the matter in that context. The only query is whether too rigid a moratorium could itself create injustice in certain circumstances—for example, where the legitimate collapse of a business through commercial misfortune, as sometimes happens, triggers the need to realise assets quickly. It is about getting the balance right. I would not want to discourage people from investing in pubs, which might happen if they thought they could not always get their assets out again. However, there is more work that we can and will do on that.
On change of use, as was said, when used properly, there is already an ability to import viability into the test. Local authorities can remove committed development rights under the existing use classes order through what is called an article 4 direction. However, as part of our reform of planning policy, we intend to consult more generally on reform of the use classes order. Again, there is an opportunity for that conversation to continue. Similarly, as my hon. Friend says, we have announced a review into the use of covenants, which can be used to prevent a fair playing field for communities when public houses are sold on.
On the question of demolition, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) for his private Member’s Bill. In the past, demolition has been excluded, but we are prepared to look carefully with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members at whether there is some means by which we can, perhaps in the context of the community right to buy, extend planning control to the demolition of community assets. That might be a means by which we can achieve a proportionate solution. I hope the door is open to my hon. Friend in that regard.
I am sorry that there is no time for me to say more. However, I hope I have shown that we take the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West in the spirit in which they were intended. I congratulate him on what he has done. We will continue to have a conversation on those specific points.