Change planning laws to protect historic pub buildings, campaigners say

The UK risks losing a vital part of its heritage unless planning laws are changed to protect historic pub buildings, campaigners have said.

Greg Mulholland, the director of Campaign for Pubs, said the growing anger over the fire and demolition of the Crooked House pub in Staffordshire must act as a “catalyst for change” in the approach to protecting historic pubs.

“The reality is that up and down the country, communities are seeing pubs converted and demolished when the pub was perfectly viable in many cases,” he said. “The government will say it’s down to local councils and communities to act, which is a complete cop-out.

“It’s very easy for politicians to say how important the pub is and to pose behind the bar with a pint. But actually, we have a very laissez-faire system when it comes to pubs. We are losing part of our history and our heritage, and that’s just not recognised in the planning system at the moment.”

Related: Staffordshire police treating fire at Crooked House pub as arson

The Crooked House pub was burned in a fire nine days after being sold by the brewer Marston’s. It was one of 61 pubs the company put on the market earlier this year, while the Stonegate Group, the largest pub company in the UK, has put 1,000 venues up for sale in recent months.

The popular wonky pub in Staffordshire was demolished by its new owners, the property company ATE Farms, two days after the fire, amid a police investigation into the cause of the blaze.

Pubs across the country have suffered similar fates.

Last year a fire ripped through the Leopard, a pub in Stoke-on-Trent once frequented by Josiah Wedgwood, and plans have been submitted to turn the premises into housing.

At the end of the Curry Mile in Manchester, an unexplained fire led to the demolition of Hardy’s Well pub, which dated back to the 1830s and was known for a large Lemn Sissay poem painted on its outside wall, one of the first public poems in the country.

Research by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has revealed a third of pub losses this year happened without the required planning permission.

In 2017, planning law was changed so that pubs in England could not be converted or demolished without planning permission. But Camra found that of the 96 pubs that had been converted or demolished across the UK in the first six months of the year, 31 of those lacked planning permission.

“The Crooked House is the latest in a line of pubs you hear about that have been knocked down or converted without any reference to the local community or without seeking proper permissions,” said Tom Stainer, the chief executive of Camra.

He said penalties for developers were not severe enough, so some were simply factoring the cost of fines into a project.

“Some developers know they might get fined, but at the end of the day, they’re going to end up doing what they want to do, which is to knock down a pub and rebuild it as something else and make a lot of money that way,” Stainer said.

He cited the examples of the Carlton Tavern, in north London, and the Punch Bowl Inn, in Lancashire, as successful examples of councils ordering pubs to be rebuilt after demolition.

“But clearly the system isn’t working – these properties need protection, there needs to be proper enforcement, there needs to be serious penalties for people who it seems in many cases deliberately ride roughshod through planning legislation.”

Mulholland said: “The only thing that is stopping the loss of pubs at the moment is the actions of some amazing councils when it comes to planning protection. That now needs to be something that councils up and down the country are doing, but they need support in doing that.

“Last week the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was all too happy to have his picture taken with a pint of beer in his hand saying how much he supported pubs. Now we need real action.”

A government spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressures pubs are under from global factors pushing up the price of energy and other costs, and their importance for communities across the country. That’s why we supported all hospitality businesses – including pubs – with an unprecedented package of support for energy bills last winter. This is in addition to the billions in grants and loans offered throughout the pandemic.”