Change of use of drinking establishments

Part of Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 28th March 2017.

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Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 2:45 pm, 28th March 2017

First, may I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a shareholder of a small family business which for the past 40 years has included a single pub? Today, there has been a huge amount of agreement on the appropriateness of the Government’s amendments to Lords amendment 22, and I pay tribute to a lot of people who have been involved in that process. I pay particular tribute to Greg Mulholland, who is also, in effect, the Member for CAMRA in this House. I know how seriously he takes his duties in that respect. He rightly highlighted English Tourism Week, but even more importantly this weekend we have the Gloucester beer festival. It runs from 31 March to 1 April, which, appropriately, some may say, happens to be my wedding anniversary, and takes place in the historic setting of Blackfriars, the world’s best-preserved Dominican priory. So I invite all Members to come to Gloucester this weekend, as there will be 100 beers, 30 ciders and perries, and an unbelievable atmosphere, in a great and noble old setting.

That deals with the preamble, so I come on to what I really want to say. I seek to strike a slightly different note, mild caution, and ask the Minister whether he has thought carefully about the possible unintended consequences of his amendment—I am sure he has. It would be a cruel irony if, in trying to protect pubs, this addition to the Bill triggered sales of pubs by small owners and increased the stranglehold on pubs of the large pubcos and very large brewers.

The Minister will know that there is a long history of unintended consequences in the brewing and pub sector. If we go back in time, we find that this House legislated against individual brewers owning more than 2,000 pubs, which inadvertently created large pubcos. The wheel has now almost come full circle, with Heineken proposing to buy back 2,000 pubs from a pubco. So there are times when, by trying to manage too finely what happens to our pubs, we end up with unintended consequences.

My concern, which I have also heard expressed by one or two small owners of pubs in my constituency, is that this sort of change could threaten the covenant with the banks that finance them. Lenders may lend more willingly on the understanding that in the unfortunate event of the pub failing there will always be value in the buildings for other uses, as that then underpins the security on which they lend to small owners. As in our pub, it is the small owners of pubs who tend to develop their own brewhouse and produce the real ale that CAMRA is all about. On the whole, the large pubcos and large brewers, who have their own entirely tied arrangements, are not going to produce the creative, small beers and the brewhouses which have regenerated this whole sector so effectively over the past 10 or 15 years.

Therefore, my question to the Minister is: has he thought carefully about the possible unintended consequences? Has he had any discussions with some of the individual owners of pubs or with their bankers and lenders? Will he reassure us that he believes that these changes are a compromise that do give enough flexibility to retain the support of those who lend to small owners of pubs and to provide that variety—what the hon. Member for Leeds North West was calling the “community pubs”? That is hard to define, but it is often when a pub is family-owned.

All of us present for this debate are huge fans of pubs —probably of beer, too—and want to see them continue. We want to know that the listing of assets of community value matters, and we certainly do not want to see large supermarkets preying on pubs at the cost of the community. In my community, there is currently an issue with the future of the former Ridge and Furrow pub, which is on a site owned by Morrisons, the supermarket, but tenanted to Trust Inns. There has been an effective stand-off between Morrisons and Trust Inns, meaning that the building has been abandoned for some years and is a very unsightly contribution to the Abbey ward community in Gloucester. Situations such as that one cannot be resolved entirely through legislation and need heads to be knocked together and people to come to pragmatic solutions.

Generally speaking, I absolutely support all the intentions of this House and the campaigns led by CAMRA to ensure that our community pubs thrive and that we have lots of pubs offering all sorts of different real ales. The individual family owners of pubs have a crucial role to play. I just hope that the amendment will not inadvertently threaten that part of the sector.