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Community Assets

Volume 547: debated on Monday 2 July 2012

5. What plans his Department has to offer support to communities seeking to purchase their local pubs or other assets of community value. (114390)

The Government recently laid before the House the assets of community value regulations, which give communities a fairer chance to bid to take over local assets, including their local and valued pubs. We will also support communities that take up these rights, and details of a support package to achieve that end will be announced very shortly.

Some of the finest pubs in the country are in Northumberland, including the one in Humshaugh in my constituency, which was saved by the local community. Does the Minister agree that it is a concern that soldiers were turned away from a pub down south last week? As Armed Forces day took place last weekend, including in my constituency of Hexham, does he also agree that pubs should be encouraged to accept soldiers at all times?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents on the initiative in Humshaugh. I have had the opportunity of visiting other community initiatives in his area, including the Forum cinema, which has been very successful. On the point about the welcome to soldiers in our pubs, I, along with all other Members of this House, am horrified at such inappropriate and disgraceful treatment of men and women who, as we sadly learned again today, regularly put their lives on the line on behalf of our country. I note that the management of the premises in question have said that in the light of the public reaction, they will review their policy. I sincerely hope that they do; they ought to, and it ought to be changed. I hope that that is the message that all hon. Members present will send to them.

The continued decline of the local newspaper industry is of huge concern to Members on both sides of the House. Those publications are clearly community assets. What consideration has the Minister given to amending the Localism Act to protect those papers from the actions of predatory news groups?

Under the Localism Act, assets are defined in terms of property assets. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that one of the challenges to local newspapers sometimes comes from the use of taxpayer-funded propaganda sheets by local authorities. It is for that reason that the Government have strengthened the rules on transparency. I hope that he will join me in encouraging those overwhelmingly Labour-controlled councils that do not play by the rules on fair trading and transparency to come into line, because many of us think that they are deliberately trying to squeeze an independent voice of criticism out of those Labour-controlled areas.

I welcome the community right to bid for pubs and other community assets, but does the Minister agree that unfortunately it will not be as successful as it should be while the loophole allowing the demolition of free-standing pubs remains, and while the right to bid allows pubs to be changed into things like betting shops and solicitors’ offices, with planning permission? Would it not be simpler to introduce a separate use class, so that the community always has a say when a pub is to be closed or demolished?

There are two points: first, the Government have indicated that they will look at the operation of the use classes order more generally; and secondly, the issue regarding demolition stems from a court definition of what counts as development, and that recently changed. Now a local authority has in its gift the ability to issue what is called an article 4 direction, removing deemed permissions in relation to various classes of development. That is an option that should be considered. So, too, is the option of neighbourhood plans, which could recognise the importance of local public houses and other community facilities. Indeed, the national planning policy framework strengthens the weight that can be given to such issues as material considerations.