I observed Cambridge City Council’s South Area Committee on the 11th of November 2010 where councillors refused to give planning permission for the demolition of The Queen Edith pub and for new homes to be built on the site.
Councillors on the committee were told by the planning officer that Cambridge City Council’s own planning policy, the local plan, does not allow them to consider pubs as a “community facility” the loss of which can be considered a material factor in a planning decision. Councillors were told that the local plan defines what community facilities are protected and told that pubs fall outside that definition.
The relevant section of the local plan states the following are classed as Community Facilities:
5.22 Core uses within Use Class D1 which form the basis of community facilities include premises used for:
- the provision of traditional and complementary medical or health services, except for the use of premises ancillary to the home of the consultant;
- the provision of education;
- a crèche, day nursery or playgroup;
- place of worship or religious instruction;
- a museum or other building to display works of art for public viewing;
- a community centre, public hall or meeting place; and
- a public library.
5.23 Also a number of uses outside the D1 or C2 classes (sui generis) are included, such as facilities for the emergency services, public toilets and court buildings.
Public Houses, are not explicitly mentioned, and do not come under “Class D1″, they have their own use class category, “A4″ which is defined as: “Use as a public house, wine bar or other drinking establishment (but not a nightclub)”.
The committee broke with the usual convention that they focus solely on the planning matter in-front of them and briefly debated their own council’s planning policy. The Liberal Democrat members appeared to reach a consensus on the view that as it was it was lacking, and it ought be updated to include public houses as a community facility.
Despite the Liberal Democrats locally having failed to include a provision in their local planning policy which would allow them to do what they wanted and save the pub from demolition they were rescued by the planning officer who told them there was national planning guidance which they were also allowed to consider; and that did state that saving a pub because of its value to the community was something councillors could take into consideration.
This national guidance is Planning Policy Statement 4: Planning for Sustainable Economic Growth (PPS4); section EC13 from that document states:
Determining Planning Applications Affecting Shops And Services In Local Centres And Villages
When assessing planning applications affecting shops, leisure uses including public houses or services in local centres and villages, local planning authorities should:
- a. take into account the importance of the shop, leisure facility or service to the local community or the economic base of the area if the proposal would result in its loss or change of use
- b. refuse planning applications which fail to protect existing facilities which provide for people’s day-to-day needs
- c.respond positively to planning applications for the conversion or extension of shops which are designed to improve their viability
- d. respond positively to planning applications for farm shops which meet a demand for local produce in a sustainable way and contribute to the rural economy, as long as they do not adversely affect easily accessible convenience shopping
I think it is ironic that while the Liberal Democrats support localism; they have had to fall-back on national planning guidance in-order to be able to act in the interests of those they represent. I don’t think this is an argument against localism; its an argument for electing better local councillors. If the Liberal Democrats running Cambridge City Council didn’t keep getting bailed out either in as in this case by central government, or as more often happens, by the County Council, then the effects of their bad decisions would be more clearly seen and I don’t think they would be re-elected.
As soon as the item started Labour councillor Stuart Newbold stepped down from the committee for the item and observed from the public seating; I believe this is because he objects to the constraints places on councillors when determining planning matters (See another Labour councillor’s statement explaining why he doesn’t take part in planning). I believe the meeting’s chair may have been trying, without clarity, to prompt the Cllr Newbold to explain what he was doing. Labour Cllr McPherson did not take part in the debate, and did not vote either; he also didn’t make his position clear.
The meeting’s chair Cllr Amanda Taylor reported that 271 people had signed a petition against the demolition of the pub. The petitioners were not considered objectors. The meeting was told verbally by the chair that there had been 47 people who had objected. This number does not appear to tally well with the number of representations published on the council’s website or the planning report. It is the number on the “comments” tab on the application’s page on the planning public access system; a quick check reveals many of those are duplicate comments and there are not 47 of them in any case.
Planning Officer Mr Carter very briefly introduced his report. He focused on relaying comments from near neighbours which had been received after the deadline for responses. (It appears to me that formally responding to a planning consultation is one of the worst ways to try and get your point of view across to the councillors making a decision. Late comments via officers get specifically brought to councillors attention, those writing to the committee often get their objections read out, and public speakers at the committee get to put their points just before councillors make the decision.)
Mr Carter explained his recommendation was not to retain the public house on the grounds its demolition would not be a significant loss of a facility.
There were two public speakers who were opposing planning permission being given; they were Caroline Göhler of Cambridge Past Present and Future and a Mr Barnes who said he was speaking on behalf of the licensee, their family, and customers.
Caroline Göhler said Cambridge Past Present and Future was a “planning watchdog” with over a thousand members. CPPF’s objection letter ought be viewable via the council website, but at the time of writing I get the error message “This document is unavailable for viewing at this time”, the system on which the council spent significant amounts of money on is not working properly. CPPF objected very strongly against the loss of the pub on the grounds is a valuable facility for the local community.
Mr Barnes explained the pub served both locals and Addenbrooke’s staff. He urged councillors not to focus on their own planning policy but to look to the national guidance contained within PPG4; he argued it was obvious that the provisions there applied to the Queen Edith, and said the pub was clearly part of the local centre. Mr Barnes said the references in the report to good transport links from the area showed that the officer writing the report did not understand the role of a local pub. He explained that the pub was a place people could go in, and meet people they knew, other locals, and pointed out that doesn’t happen if you get on a bus to go to a city centre pub. Mr Barnes told councillors that many users of the pub couldn’t cycle, or walk very far; he gestured to some of the pub users who were present in the public seating area, some of whom’s mobility problems were clear as they had come in.
A Mr Smith, spoke to suport the application, introducing himself as Punch Tavern’s agent (Punch Taverns PLC were the applicant). He started by saying the application had been made following discussions with the council’s planning officers. He said a tough decision had been made to seek planning permission and that decision would not have been made had the pub been a thriving business. He explained there was a general downturn in pub usage, there had been an impact from the smoking ban and that there was strong competition from other pubs in the area as well as from cheap alcohol from supermarkets. He cited The Rock as an alternative pub, which he said was within maximum recommended walking distance and on bus and cycle routes from the area.
County Councillor Heathcock was also allowed to speak, in person, against giving the planning permission sought. He was given an unlimited amount of time to speak, unlike the other objectors who were given two minutes each. (The meeting’s chair explained she had split the usual three minutes for an objector between the two public objectors, and added a bit; and made clear the individual speaking for the applicant was given an equal amount of time to that given in total to the objectors ie. four minutes).
I thought it was surprising that Cllr Heathcock had written his letter of objection on Cambridgeshire County Council headed note paper; giving the impression that the County Council corporately supported his objection.
Cllr Heathcock described the planning officer’s report as the worst report he had ever seen. The planning officer smiled at this, (something for which he later apologised). Mr Heathcock condemned the report for being: “full of opinion which was not backed up with fact” (a charge he repeated in a post-meeting article). He argued that the report showed council officers don’t think that Queen Edith’s matters in the context of the city. Cllr Heathcock said Punch Taverns had treated their manager badly, they’d signed a five year agreement with him, but then he learnt, from the Cambridge News, that the application to demolish the pub had been submitted. Cllr Heathcock also complained Punch Taverns had not consulted local councillors, or local residents about their proposals prior to submitting the application.
The meeting’s chair Cllr Taylor started the committee’s deliberations in a rather unusual way, by outlining her own view. She said the pub was the only one in the Queen Edith ward and that it provides a valuable service, particularly through being the only local place hot meals were available for sale, something she said was important to the elderly population. Cllr Taylor claimed one would need to take two busses to get to the alternative pub mentioned, The Rock. Cllr Taylor said the problem was that there had been a lack of investment in The Queen Edith and that given a population of 15,000 people living within a mile of the public house along with the nearby hospital, there was the potential to run a sustainable business on the site.
Cllr Stuart spoke to say the pub is “a community focus”; she said that despite it being deep within its plot it was still clearly part of the local centre.
Cllr Jean Swanson said she had concerns about the officer’s report, she said it wasn’t even accurate in terms of the detail of proposed new homes. She said the report stated eight three bedroom homes whereas that was not what had been applied for. She asked the officer to confirm this, and stated that this error meant she had little confidence in the rest of the report (it has knock on effects such as meaning the S.106 development tax calculations are wrong). The application form (which the council’s web site does not enable linking directly to) does show the basic inconsistency, as the application is for four three bedroom homes, and four homes with 4+ bedrooms. The planning officer did not address Cllr Swanson’s comment and the meeting’s chair didn’t push for an answer.
Cllr Al-Bander spoke briefly to say the pub was a community meeting place; he said that unlike other pubs it had notice boards full of adverts for community events and was a good place to find out what was going on.
Cllr Dryden reported to the committee that when he worked in Addenbrooke’s he used to go to the pub, and that it was used by hospital staff. He agreed it was a difficult time for pubs at the moment, put pointed out that if it was lost, we will never get it back.
Cllr Sanders said that busses didn’t run late enough to be of use to pub-goers, and going to pubs further away was not an option for the older and disabled population.
Cllr Taylor, as chair, tried to get councillors to comment on the proposed replacement buildings. None of the councillors said anything, apart from Cllr Viki Sanders who told the committee that all the objections to the proposed new buildings which she was considering raising had been addressed when she had looked at the large plans displayed at the meeting. I think it is astonishing that despite the council’s new online system, giving councillors and everyone else full access to the application documents, Cllr Sanders had not viewed the detailed plans prior to the meeting. I have suggested on a number of occasions that a link to the relevant page on the council’s open access planning system be included on meeting agendas for the benefit of both councillors and the public and am baffled at why the Liberal Democrats running the council, who stood on a manifesto promising transparency and openness, are refusing to implement this simple improvement.
The meeting moved to a vote, with the chair Cllr Taylor asking for those in favour of the officer’s recommendation to approve the application to put their hands up. No councillors raised their hands, so she move to asking for “those against”. Cllrs Dryden, Stuart, Blackhurst, Taylor, Sanders, Swanson and Al Bander voted against.
The planning officer complained; and said this vote was invalid as the question had been asked the wrong way round. He also complained that councillors had not given their reasons for disagreeing with his recommendation before voting against it.
The officer then asked for time to draft a possible reasons, based on what councillors had said, which councillors would then be asked to approve. Cllr Taylor outlined the reasons she had for voting against; which surprisingly from my point of view given the proposed new buildings had not been debated at all included lots of reasons relating to the impact those would have on the appearance and feel of the street. Following a couple of questions councillors agreed with the reasoning set out by Cllr Taylor. I do not believe that due to the emphasis on objecting to the proposed new homes the approved reasons actually reflected councillors true reasons for refusal as laid out during the deliberation.
The planning officer asked for some clarification on some points; he appeared to be preparing himself and the council, for having to defend the councillor’s reasoning on appeal; I don’t think councillors’ really helped in setting out a clear and defensible position.
A second vote was held, this time on rejecting the officer recommendation for the reasons agreed by the committee. Councillors voted the same way on this second vote as they had done in the first.
After the vote a short break was taken in the meeting and Liberal Democrat Cllr Viki Sanders gave planning officer Mr Carter, whose recommendation she and her party colleagues had voted against, a hug. Cllr Sanders had been scathing of Mr Carter’s report calling it “unbalanced”.
I hope there is a mechanism through which councillor’s comments on the quality of service they received from their officers is fed back, so that improvements can be made.
I think the underlying problem here is the astronomical current price of housing relative to average incomes and relative to the amount of money can which can be made through other land uses (such as running a pub). The primary problem is people getting in to excessive debt to find what they consider a suitable place to live. The problem is not just with the banks, but with individuals who have, and continue to, accept the situation. The long term solutions are better education, and better bank regulation in equal measure.
Councillors have to be very careful when meddling with the operation of the free market, and people’s right to property. I think there has to be a very high hurdle for any intervention. The problem is that Cambridge’s Liberal Democrats have already pushed the price of property in the city higher than its free market level through their development taxes and insistence on excluding 40% of properties on new development sites on the outskirts of the city from the open market.
I have observed the East Area committee debate if planning permission for a shop to be turned into a home ought be permitted; they allowed it on the grounds that in many Cambridge streets shops come and go as times change. I think the East Area committee got their decision right, allowing the conversion; however the matter the South Area committee debated in this case was much more challenging due to the increased difficulty in re-introducing a replacement facility to the area should it be lost.
If we are going to insist that plot is used for a community facility – what uses exactly are we going to allow? How might we allow the owner to do something else with the land other than run a pub? Will we require the provision of a community facility within any new development, or would we allow the owner to compensate the city for the loss, allowing the city to establish and run an alternative community facility?
Refusing planning permission doesn’t necessarily protect the pub; the owners could close it tomorrow. That said economically it the refusal of planning permission might encourage them to either sell the property to someone else to run as a pub, or to invest in it themselves and make it more profitable.
I think we have to be careful to ensure everyone is treated equally under the law; in this case under planning law. Would the opposition to these proposals be any less, any different, if this was a privately owned, pub owned by a local individual or family, as opposed to what is seen as a faceless large corporation?
I think planning ought be an appropriately local, and democratic (not quasi-judicial), process. I think that protecting community facilities ought be something councillors can consider when making a decision on a planning application. In this case it was up to local councillors to decide if this pub really counted as a vital community facility it was in the public interest to seek to protect; and they did so. The Campaign for Real Ale suggests a Public House Viability Test ought be conducted answering the question:
“What could this business achieve given a management dedicated to it, and with full discretion over stocking policy and type of operation?”.
That was certainly a question Cllr Amanda Taylor addressed during deliberations, her determination was it would be possible to run a viable pub on the site and my interpretation was that was her primary reason for voting to refuse the application.
I think its is right that democratically elected and accountable councillors weighed various factors which needed to be balanced including the public interest in more housing provision, verses the loss of a valued community facility. Perhaps though councillors do need more guidance to ensure that sufficient weight is given to avoiding interfering with basic human rights and the operation of the free market; those issues were not raised at all during the discussion.
I think it is very wrong that the decision of the elected and accountable councillors is now widely expected to be appealed and ultimately decided by an unelected, unaccountable, planning inspector. I think if we gave our councillors real power; we’d get better councillors elected. I think an appeal from a committee such as the South Area Committee ought be only permitted on grounds of failure of due-process and ought be heard by another panel of local elected councillors.
Private / Gated Accommodation
The proposals may have created yet another private road, or gated community, in the city. I think the expansion in the numbers of these non-public areas which has been presided over by the Liberal Democrats has been one of the ways they’ve significantly, and negatively affected Cambridge during the years they’ve been running the council. As well as being divisive, they create problems relating to things like parking enforcement as we’ve seen on St. Matthew’s gardens and on the Vie development and are storing up huge issues for the future when significant maintenance is needed on shared private spaces. We’ve also seen problems with policing and justice on these private areas and residents of Thrift’s Walk in Chesterton recently resorted to seeking financial and technical help from the councils when they wanted to upgrade their road. I would like to see Cambridge’s planning policy change, and ensure new developments become part of the public realm and not isolated enclaves.
- Planning Officer’s Report 10/0815/FUL – Queen Edith Public House, Wulfstan Way
- Queen Edith Public House, Wulfstan Way – Map Identifying Site
- Application page on “Public Access” system, giving links to all application documents and public comments
- Westminister Hall Debate – British Pubs – February 2010
- County Councilor Geoff Heathcock’s post-meeting article – I presume this is by Mr Heathcock despite about two thirds of it being written in the third person.
- Local Planning Document Defective – Article by Conservative Andew Bower commenting on the decision. Mr Bower was not at the meeting in person but followed along via my tweets.
- Cllr Amanda Taylor’s post meeting article on the decision – The vote was 7:0 not 10:0 as she claims. There were nine city councillors eligible to vote, three from each South Area ward Cllrs Newbold and McPherson not participating.
- Pub regulars raise glasses after demolition bid fails Chris Havergal – Cambridge News, 13th November 2010