My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I should perhaps also declare a non-interest: I have never been involved in any way in running a pub but am simply an occasional and perhaps too frequent consumer.
I do not think any of us here are suggesting that all pubs should be preserved in aspic regardless of circumstances. Of course pubs become unviable for all sorts of reasons, such as different social trends or changes in the local neighbourhood. There are all sorts of reasons why a pub genuinely becomes no longer viable. However, there is a big difference between “not viable” and “not as profitable as it could be”. In other words, a building can certainly be used more profitably as something other than a pub; the site on which a pub stands could certainly be developed more profitably than by being retained as a pub. That is the difference, but no one here is suggesting that pubs should be retained regardless of local circumstances.
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, referred several times to new, additional legislation. I suppose, since we are considering legislation, it is in a sense new legislation, but actually the effect of what is being proposed is simply that the consideration of any demolition or development of a public house should go through the normal planning process. I am not sure that strictly speaking that is what I would have understood by “new legislation”. What we are saying is that the local community should have its opportunity to give voice to its views on any proposed development of a public house in the normal way through the normal planning permission. The position at the moment is that through permitted development rights the owner or someone else has the right to demolish or develop the pub regardless of the local planning authority or the local community’s views. That is what is objectionable and it is one of the reasons, though not by any means the only one, why so many pubs are disappearing—because there are more profitable uses for the building and/or the site. That is what is causing so much concern.
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is probably right that some local authorities have possibly used the device of assets for community value rather too liberally or generously. Maybe so, but there is a good reason why they are doing that: it is the only way that they can avoid the problems with the permitted development rights. I think “assets of community value” was an excellent measure, introduced as it was by the coalition Government through the Localism Act—“localism”, incidentally, is a word that we do not hear very much these days—but it was put in there for rather different purposes than a blanket position to refer to all pubs in a particular local authority area regardless of circumstances.
All that is really being suggested here is not strictly new legislation but rather that we revert to the situation that used to apply that, if you wish to make appropriate changes to a building—in this case a public house—whether by demolition or redevelopment of the site, you apply to the local planning authority. It goes through the normal planning process; the local community has its opportunity to make representations and the planning applicant has its opportunity to make representations and the elected planning authority makes the decision. That is what is being proposed here—not that all pubs should be preserved regardless of circumstances or, alternatively, that all pub site owners should have the right to develop regardless. I very much support the amendments and I hope that they will be put to the vote. I hope, of course, that that vote will be successful, and I hope then that the Government will consider very seriously what seems to be—we may be about to prove it—a majority view on all sides of this House, which is most certainly the majority view in most if not all communities.