What has made this easier for developers to achieve is the lack of robust local planning policies to protect community facilities like pubs. This in turn has created major difficulties for the Council in resisting planning applications for changing the use of pubs. The Council last revised its Local Plan in 2006, at which time protecting pubs “simply wasn't an issue”, according to the Council's Planning Policy Manager, Sara Saunders.
CAMRA first raised the problem formally with the Council in summer 2009. We were told that the Local Plan (now known as the Local Development Framework) was to be revised, with public consultations in 2011 and implementation in 2012 (the latter date has now slipped to 2014). Both ourselves and Cambridge Past, Present and Future have continued to press the Council on this, especially as the rate of pub losses has escalated. To their credit, the Council has now taken notice and promised action.
A big issue here, of course, is that even if effective policies come into force in 2014, how many more pubs will have been lost in the interim? The Council has therefore recognised the need to bring in “emergency” interim planning guidance later this year. As a preliminary, they are commissioning consultants to carry out a detailed survey of the surviving pubs, particularly to assess how they support community life now and their potential to do so in the future. The Council has consulted both ourselves and Cambridge PPF on the specifications for this exercise and we have been pleased to offer our input.
The Council has also addressed the immediate problem of continuing applications to replace pubs with housing. They have refused two recent such applications – for the Carpenters Arms and Unicorn Cherry Hinton – despite their lack of local planning policies. Reliance is instead placed on the new National Planning Policy Framework. Although this is still in draft, Councils have been told that it is already a “material consideration” in planning law and can therefore be utilised. The Framework contains, thanks to intense lobbying from CAMRA, provisions yo protect “valued community facilities” (which include pubs) if they help meet people's day to day needs.
Greene King have lodged an appeal against the Unicorn decision and this will be decided by a Planning Inspector, with the Hearing likely to be in March. This will be a very important test case, not just locally but nationally. If the Inspector upholds the Council's decision then many other, mostly urban, Councils which don't have policies protective of pubs will also be able to use the NPPF provisions. Watch this space.