Heritage Pubs — [Martin Vickers in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:36 pm on 16 November 2023.

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[Martin Vickers in the Chair]

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North 3:00, 16 November 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered heritage pubs.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Vickers, on a topic that I know you care about, particularly when it comes to those edifices that might be willing to serve you a rum baba, which I know you are keen on.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for selecting my debate, even if it is on a Thursday when we know most MPs travel back to their constituencies, as indeed I would have done, so I am grateful to colleagues here today.

There are many people I should be thanking. First and foremost, I would like to thank the people of predominately Gornal and Sedgley, but also the wider area of Dudley and south Staffordshire, whose energy and dedication to the cause is second to none. I particularly thank the admins of the Facebook page, “Save The Crooked House (Let’s Get It Re-built)” for their unstinting voluntary effort at keeping the show on the road and for moderating the page. Why is that important? We know the police and the local authority have a painstaking job still to do, and things could be said that unwittingly militate against the common cause in a court of law.

I thank a former colleague of this place, though not in my time—Mr Greg Mulholland—for the part he has been playing supporting our efforts. Thanks also go to several others, including Campaign for Real Ale and Historic England. If I have forgotten to thank any person or institution, I apologise but many people have offered to help, including from overseas, such as in Canada, Australia, the US and even South Korea. The incident around The Crooked House pub has been reported on in broadsheets on every continent.

The demise of The Crooked House pub, while tragic in and of itself, has highlighted a much bigger issue nationwide. Put simply, the framework we have in place to protect our heritage pubs is simply not winning the war against unscrupulous developers or even against our changing socioeconomic environment, which means many establishments that were once profitable are not today. Our way of managing that decline most often leads to one outcome: the demise of the pub, often followed by the demise of the building, too. We need something better to be done.

There is an issue with councils underappreciating the risks to heritage pubs. Not enough heritage pubs have any listed protection, not least because everyone—the system, MPs—presume that pubs could be listed when, in fact, they are not. That happened with The Crooked House. Our system does not compel local authorities to keep a register of heritage pubs; it is voluntary. Historic England, which as I said earlier has been helpful, described the selection criteria that covers heritage pubs of note. It said,

“All medieval commercial buildings will be eligible for designation since they are exceptionally rare…Most buildings prior to about 1850 surviving in anything like their original form will be listable;
intact contemporary details and fittings, both internal and external (like shop fronts, tiled decoration, counters and back-fittings) may justify a high grade. As with all buildings after about 1850, rigorous selection is necessary. Given the high rates of attrition, however, all buildings which retain claims to special architectural interest, irrespective of date, deserve careful consideration. Intact modern retail architecture of note is surprisingly rare, however, so it is important to identify these examples as well.”

Historic England places significance on the date of 1850. The Crooked House was built in 1765, and it had no listing protections whatever. The system as it is failed. It may also be true that some very old buildings do not merit listing. The date per se should not be the only criteria, as Historic England makes clear, but a building such as The Crooked House is the repository of tens of thousands of individual memories. It is the home of the collective memories of the communities surrounding it over centuries. In this case, it saw the birth of the industrial revolution, coalmining, limestone mining and steelworking. It saw the trials and tribulations of a people to whom we owe so much. All that is now burned and pulverised. We need to do more to prevent that from happening again.

That is why I would like to see local authorities being required to hold and review, perhaps yearly, a register listing all heritage pubs. Local authorities should also develop their own risk register so that any event, such as an advert for sale, triggers a system for closer monitoring of what happens to the building. I am also calling for heritage pubs that do not have a listing status to receive immediate temporary listing protections upon an application for listing being made. That system works well in Wales. When it was established—by chance, may I say—that The Crooked House was for sale, an immediate listing application was made, but the building was burned and demolished within days. The listing process never stood a chance of becoming effective.

There was extensive debate on this matter during the progress of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, with Ministers concerned by the practical implementation of such a system, since the listing system operates slightly differently in Wales and there would be challenges over scale—this is what I have been told—in England. I respond by saying that those challenges should be circumvented. They should not be a barrier to doing the right thing. How many more Crooked Houses do we need? How many more times do we want to see our own history ripped out of the heart of our local communities before this challenge over scale becomes small enough to manage?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this important issue. He underlines the importance of heritage pubs and what they can do. I can think of three right away in my constituency. First, The Auld House in Moneyreagh was an old building that had to be renovated, and a new building has been erected, so a lot of the character has been lost, but the history of the Auld House is still there.

Then there is the history of Roma Hamill’s in Newtownards, which was blown up by the IRA back in the middle ’80s. Because of the bomb it had to be rebuilt, but it is a heritage pub in the middle of the town that has been there for generations.

The oldest one in Newtownards is now called The Parlour, but it was previously called The Old Cross. It was built in 1735. It is a heritage pub with real character, real history and real tradition. Those are the things that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I agree with him, and it is important that they are retained and that, for a generational thing and historically looking back, we can have them for the next generation who come forward.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

I very much welcome that intervention. When we achieve the rebuild of The Crooked House perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I can celebrate it over a pint in one of the establishments that he has just mentioned.

The debate that I referred to earlier about the passage of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 concluded that a building preservation notice section would be a more appropriate tool than the Welsh system, and that is now section 105 of the Act. However, a date for its implementation is still to be confirmed. I am also unclear as to how we could quickly apply it to scenarios that can evolve as fast as the one involving The Crooked House. The timing of how quickly such protections can be implemented is a key element in making that approach effective. Therefore, I must conclude that temporary listing protections would immediately mitigate the risk for pubs that are worthy of listing even while they remained unlisted. How would a building preservation notice be quickly applied and be quickly effective? Perhaps the Minister could assist me by addressing that point in his remarks.

A clear risk to heritage pubs is when they are being sold, often at speed, to developers that do not wish to maintain the building as a pub, thus not allowing enough time for a buyer who might wish to continue using the building as a pub. That is also why I am calling the local planning authorities to treat said buildings with a presumption against change of use, a bit like the way in which green-belt land has a presumption against residential development.

I am also calling for the sale of heritage pubs to be restricted initially, for a period of 12 months, to buyers who intend to continue running them as pubs. Such a sale would be at a value predetermined by independent valuers assessing the pub as a going concern. Such a restriction might seem counterintuitive to Conservatives such as you and me, Mr Vickers, but it would allow for time to find a prospective buyer who wishes to continue using the pub as a pub.

Too often, heritage pubs close needlessly because of these short timescales and the imbalance between prospective publicans and property developers, who always have greater purchasing power when assessing the asset for alternative development. What I am trying to do today is to give these heritage pubs and these buildings a better chance. To be clear, however, if the 12-month period passes and a buyer is not found, the pub would return to the open market.

Many people I have spoken to often refer to the system of assets of community value to protect heritage pubs. Yes, there have been some examples of where that system has worked, but it was actually designed for the likes of community halls and church buildings, rather than for commercial buildings and going concerns, which have different and more complex dynamics. It is a system that also relies on the local community to find the money required within a short timeframe of just six months, if, indeed, authorities even accept that ACV criteria have been met. Crucially, though, a freeholder can still refuse an offer to purchase their property under the ACV system.

A rich local community might more easily use ACVs, but many areas of the country cannot do so, and neither would the use of ACVs solve the revenue sustainability question, which is often unanswered even if the capital can be raised. Nevertheless, there is merit to ACVs, which is why I am also calling for local authorities to adopt a presumption in favour of ACV status being granted, and I ask that the ACV process be applied only after the 12-month sale restriction that I referred to earlier has ended. That would have the effect of offering local communities an 18-month window in which they could try to save their local heritage pubs, rather than having to work within the narrow six-month period under the ACV system.

I turn again to our much-loved Crooked House. There are questions arising from the event about the effectiveness of decisions taken by the fire service, the police service and the local authority, particularly on the management of risk. When the fire service attends and establishes suspicion of arson, that is communicated to the police, but the mechanism for that and how quickly it happens is unclear. While the site is still under a public service entity—if I may use that language a little loosely—the police attend and carry out their forensic work, at which point arson or otherwise is established. Crucially, even when arson is established—after which one might infer greater risk—the site by law is returned to the control of the freeholder.

There are clear questions for me on risk. Everybody in my local community was commenting that as soon as the fire had taken place, the building would be demolished. Notwithstanding specific instructions from the local authority not to do so, the building was immediately demolished. I must ask, therefore: is there a role here for legislation to step in and help prevent what was seemingly obvious to most from happening again?

To conclude, I will ask the Minister to reflect on the opportunities for substantially increasing remedies against breaches of existing and, perhaps, future law. What also seems apparent to most is that unscrupulous individuals simply factor in any of the current remedies, which are not particularly exacting, into their business plans. Thank you, Mr Vickers, and hon. Members for listening to me today. I look forward to the Minister’s considerations and, I hope, his support when I bring forward legislative proposals.

Photo of Steve Tuckwell Steve Tuckwell Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip 3:17, 16 November 2023

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Vickers. Fresh from my maiden speech earlier this week, when I got to name-drop my local, The Middlesex Arms, I swiftly realised that I could not miss today’s debate and in doing so pass up the opportunity to mention a few more gems in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, although colleagues have highlighted already that this debate is about more than just Members getting to name-check some of their local pubs.

Regardless of their location, whether in the city centre or down a winding country lane, pubs are central to our communities. They act as an anchor for local residents and the community as a whole. They are more than just somewhere to sup a pint, whether it be something alcoholic or otherwise; there are pubs that now offer food as well. We are not talking about things like a traditional pack of pork scratchings or roasted peanuts but an extensive range of catering offering a variety of tastes. Pubs are community hubs, offering tea and coffee mornings for the lonely in our communities, mother and toddler sessions and so much more.

Our pubs have adapted and made changes in order to survive. I believe that pubs play an essential role in many people’s lives and in their communities, and in Uxbridge and South Ruislip we have some great pubs. Through the trials and tribulations of covid, the lockdowns and the subsequent reopenings, we have seen pubs come under incredible strain, even more so in the light of the cost of living. However, in no area is there more strain felt than our heritage pubs.

Uxbridge and South Ruislip has a number of heritage pubs, which are long-standing historic centres of the community. The Three Tuns on Uxbridge High Street is a former coaching inn that is now a grade 2 listed pub, and was built between the 16th and 17th centuries. The Red Lion on Hillingdon Hill was built in the 1500s. Inside the historic building, visitors can find original Tudor fireplaces, original beams and even a vaulted cellar. The Malt Shovel, a 19th-century listed pub, was an important stop for those working and travelling along the country’s canals during the golden years of the UK’s waterways. It now provides fantastic canal-side drinking and dining.

Probably the most significant of these pubs locally is The Crown and Treaty. This 16th-century pub gets its name from a moment in history, at the time of the civil war, which intertwined it with Parliament, for it was at this pub, which counts for only a third of the former manor on the estate, that the royalists and parliamentarians came together to discuss a document that would become known as the treaty of Uxbridge. The meetings that took place at this pub formed a significant attempt at negotiated peace between the warring factions, three years into the English civil war. Demands from the parliamentarians that were deemed assertive, including the establishment of Presbyterianism in England and parliamentary control over military matters, combined with a royalist cause energised by recent military victories, ultimately doomed the treaty to failure. However, while the treaty may have ended up lasting just a few weeks, The Crown and Treaty itself has lasted for over 400 years, and is still going strong. In fact, it had its wood panelling returned to coincide with the late Queen’s coronation in 1953, after it was sold to fit out offices in the Empire State Building in the 1920s.

The Crown and Treaty, The Three Tuns, The Malt Shovel and The Red Lion are not just heritage pubs; they are our heritage. They are more than just community hubs; they are the community. Within their walls—literally within their fibre—is the history of our communities: an unwritten, unspoken record. That is why the scenes and events surrounding The Crooked House pub were so tragic, and yet also so bewildering. Much has been done, especially the welcome changes in planning laws, so that pubs in England can no longer be converted or demolished without planning permission. I welcome the suggestion from my hon. Friend Marco Longhi about heritage listing and the need to be documented. This also falls alongside the introduction of enforcement powers. However, The Crooked House pub episode demonstrates that there is more that can and must be done to protect our heritage pubs. They are not just pubs. They are our communities; they are our history.

It is important that existing inspection processes are strengthened, and that enforcement teams are well resourced and empowered to act on the concerns around heritage pubs. As such, I join colleagues in asking the Minister about what more the Government are doing as the pressures on all pubs, but acutely heritage pubs, continue. In the light of The Crooked House tragedy, we need to ensure we can safeguard and protect our heritage pubs so that they survive for generations to come.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 3:22, 16 November 2023

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. First, I congratulate Marco Longhi on securing the debate, and I commend him on his work campaigning on this issue after a pub in his constituency, The Crooked House, was demolished in a fire. That act sparked outrage not just across the country, but, apparently, internationally as well. His analysis of some of the difficulties and challenges that the sector faces were very much in line with our own. Certainly, some of the proposals deserve further consideration, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister on those specific points.

I also congratulate Steve Tuckwell on following up a splendid maiden speech on Monday with another excellent speech. He articulated how important pubs are to the community and how they really encapsulate the history of a particular area. That is something we will no doubt be reflecting on today.

One of the main problems we face in this discussion is the lack of a clear definition of what a heritage pub actually is. We know that once they have that status, they are afforded protections to prevent them being demolished or having their character altered, but a very small number of pubs are afforded that most stringent grade I listed status. As recently as 2015, there were just 11 in England. Many historic buildings become non-designated heritage assets, which do not have statutory protections as designated heritage assets. They are therefore easier to alter or demolish. That means that many local pubs, including The Crooked House, are vulnerable to the wishes of developers or, indeed, vandalism.

As we know, there are some laws in place to protect pubs. Since 2017, planning permission has been a requirement for a change of use or demolition, meaning that there should be at least some chance for local communities to have a say. Of course, if planning permission was not sought, enforcement action is available, but, as we have heard, the issue with The Crooked House clearly showed that these laws are not always adhered to to the degree that we would like. CAMRA follows such issues closely, and it investigated 30 potentially unlawful conversions or demolitions between January and June this year. Although some had the relevant permissions, CAMRA reports that there are eight outstanding cases in England in which enforcement investigations are under way or local authorities have not yet confirmed that a planning permission exists.

CAMRA registered its concern that local authorities have not been able to take robust enforcement action, which allows developers to flout the protections in place. I want to be clear: I do not believe that that is a result of indifference from or neglect by local authorities but simply a reflection of the financial pressures they have faced since 2010, which have meant that undertaking some of these very time-consuming and technically detailed investigations has become more of a challenge.

Unfortunately, The Crooked House is just one of a number of historic pubs that, in recent times, have suffered from a devastating blaze. The Leopard in Stoke-on-Trent, which had already submitted plans for redevelopment, was another recent example, and Hardy’s Well pub in Manchester was another that suffered a similar fate. The former was frequented by Josiah Wedgwood, and the latter dated back to the 1830s, nearly two centuries ago.

Albeit to a much lesser degree, I have in my constituency an example of a historic, derelict pub that, I think, is on the danger list. It has been subject to fires in recent years—twice last December—as well as being vandalised and subject to fly-tipping. It is the Station Hotel in Ellesmere Port, and it is on the main route into the town centre so it is in a very noticeable part of our town. It is emblematic of the problems that our town centre and many town centres face. It was a magnificent building when it was first built; I was not alive at the time, but it boasted of having one of the longest bars in the country, if not the longest. That, in itself, is of historical note, but the pub is listed only locally and is not designated as a grade II listed building, so it does not have the degree of protection that I think the local community would like to see. Since the pub closed down, there have been a number of attempts to demolish it and redevelop the site, none of which have come to fruition. The worry is that, sadly, the next fire could be the last one, and a major part of our town’s history will be lost for ever.

It is not all doom and gloom, though. A more positive local example is The Grace Arms on the other side of the town centre. It is another iconic and historic local building that was earmarked for closing six years ago, but, after campaigning by local residents and me, the owners, Greene King, decided to keep it open. They have put significant investment into the pub, changing the offer but ensuring the building continues to be a significant landmark in the local area. That is something local residents have been very pleased to see.

More broadly, there is concern about the future of pubs as a whole. The numbers and characters of pubs have changed rather dramatically since the start of this century. Statistics collected by the British Beer and Pub Association show that there has been a steady decline in the number of pubs since 2000, from about 61,000 then to about 46,000 last year. Indeed, reports suggest that the number of pubs in England and Wales in June this year stood as low as 40,000.

We know that financial pressures have played a large role in that. Office for National Statistics data shows a correlation between pubs closing and general difficulties in the economy, and we know that there has been quite a squeeze in the cost of living in recent years. That, I am afraid, has accelerated the closure of pubs. Recent reports suggest that as many as two a day are closing. Figures recently published show that the number of pubs to have been either demolished or converted to other uses this year stood at 383 by the end of the second quarter of this year—almost the same number as closed in the entirety of 2022.

Hopes that there would be a recovery in pubs in 2019 were dashed by the covid crisis—we know the history—and now, the increase in the cost of living has made life much more difficult for people who want to run pubs. In general, those pubs that have thrived have changed in character—which probably should not be a surprise to us. One of the biggest changes has been to the size of pubs. There has been a large increase in the number of pubs that employ more than 25 staff, from 2,500 in 2001 to 4,600 in 2019. Given the overall reduction in pub numbers, that means we are certainly seeing a growth in the number of those larger pubs that we have never seen before.

It could be argued that the larger, ubiquitous national chains that we see in the pub sector possibly reflect wider changes in the hospitality sector. We should be mindful that these can create difficulty in the protection of the heritage status of pubs that we want to see. As hon. Members have mentioned, there has been a significant change in the number of pubs offering food. Indeed, the number of staff employed in pubs to serve food, compared with working behind the bar, has changed dramatically in recent years. That does not mean that the fabric and heritage of the pub needs to change; I think we can find a nice balance.

Overall, it is clear that the trends of decline we have witnessed are symptomatic of wider problems on our high streets. In many ways, they have been neglected: high streets are boarded up, and access to them is getting worse. Pubs are a major part of our local community. Many memories are formed there, and they are of course an important part of the local economy.

With the many challenges that the high street faces, we do not want to see any more loss than we have. We want to put local people in the driving seat. That is why Labour will be proposing a new community right to buy, giving local communities the opportunity to take control of pubs, community venues and, indeed, football clubs that come up for sale or fall into disrepair. That will go further than the current right to bid, and it will give communities first refusal on such assets when they come up to sell, including the right to buy them without competition. This is about allowing our communities to take back control of their environments, restoring civic pride, and ensuring that those iconic buildings, that we all know and love, can survive.

I absolutely understand this is part of a wider economic debate, and that there are real challenges. I hope the Minister will respond to some of my points. On that note, I welcome him to the Front Bench; I think this must be his first outing in the role.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 3:32, 16 November 2023

If only you had known, Mr Vickers, how long I have waited to hear that word, and then find myself rising to speak. It is about eight and a half years since I was elected in 2015, so it really is a pleasure for me to say “It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship” this afternoon. First, I thank my hon. Friend Marco Longhi for raising this issue, which is important for him, his constituents and the wider community, and I compliment him on the measured way in which he did it. There is an irony in a teetotaller replying to a debate on heritage pubs and, having filled out quite a few forms with on ethics over the last few days as part of the ministerial process, finding the word “crooked” in the title of my first Westminster Hall debate did make me a little apprehensive.

To start, my hon. Friend suggested some potential legislative changes, or, certainly, those that may require investigation. My door, and the door of the Department, is open for him to come in at any time, and we can further those conversations. As the debate has shown, the issue is important on many levels. I was struck when my hon. Friend Steve Tuckwell said—I hope I quote him correctly—that these “are not just community hubs, they are the community”. How right he is. His rightness was, I suppose, only echoed by the rectitude of his constituents in returning him in the recent by-election, on which I congratulate him as a Conservative to a Conservative by-election winner. We have had not had many opportunities to say that in recent times, a trend that I believe will change pretty quickly.

Of course, no Westminster Hall debate would be complete without my friend Jim Shannon, who I thought would have been so relieved to have seen me out of the chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that he would not have wanted to hear my voice again. But here he is, and it is always a pleasure to see him. It is little bit like Christmas cake, I suppose—even if one does not like it, you do not really feel that Christmas is complete without a Christmas cake on the tea table. No debate in this place is complete without my friend the hon. Member for Strangford.

Before I forget, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North asked for the date for the implementation of the building preservation notice. That falls within the bailiwick of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. We will inquire of ministerial colleagues about that, and I will write to my hon. Friend to make sure that he has an answer as to when that will come into effect.

I join my hon. Friend in thanking those campaigners, who are feeling such a huge sense of loss at this tragedy. It is a tragedy to lose such an important local asset. For many, it will feel like a bereavement: a loved building in a community has been suddenly taken away in circumstances that one can only describe as suspicious. They will be feeling that locally, so I join my hon. Friend in congratulating them for all their efforts, and I also congratulate him for corralling them in making those efforts to ensure that, although there is no way to turn the clock back, we try to identify ways whereby the opportunities for these sorts of events to happen—because one can never say that they will never happen—is militated against. My hon. Friend will understand that a live investigation is ongoing, and it would be remiss of me to say anything that may in any way prejudice that investigation—campaigners would be furious with me were I to do so. I think that the debate has reflected that.

The building preservation notice is, of course, part of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, which provides opportunities for councils to issue notices. Those preservation notices are in place for six months, and that is an important protection, particularly if a listing application is run alongside or in tandem with the notice. Like a lot of these things, they exist, but we often forget that they exist. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to place on the record, once again, that the preservation notice exists.

The point about demolition is important. The demolition of a pub has a very particular status within the planning process. The demolition of a pub without planning permission so to do is considered, for the purposes of the planning system, to be development, and councils have an existing power to enforce a total rebuild. There is also the opportunity for fining if they refuse to comply with the enforcement notice, and that fining is unlimited. Certainly, my ministerial colleague, the Minister of State, pointed out to me that a building in the City of Westminster was demolished without the relevant consents, and the city council successfully enforced that it should be rebuilt brick for brick. So, in the case of that developer and those who seek to circumvent or circumnavigate our rules, undermining them for sharp practice, there are powers that can be used, and I would urge all local authorities to use them.

Many of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North raised in his speech are, of course, slightly tripartite in nature. Very often, we feel that life would be much easier if one Department had sole responsibility. Many of the issues that my hon. Friend mentioned obviously touch on policies within my Department, but also touch on policies within the Home Office, and he referenced the police, and on what I suppose many campaigners would say is the slightly—let me put it diplomatically—eccentric requirement that, once initial investigations have been undertaken, the site that has been investigated has to be handed back to the freeholder. I hope that I will not prejudice the investigation when I say that it would not take Hercule Poirot to raise an eyebrow with regards to the rapidity of the arrival on site of bulldozers, almost before the last embers of the fire had died out; I believe in serendipity, sometimes, but even that belief can be stretched beyond breaking point.

I have spoken to ministerial colleagues in my Department, and it is the Minister of State, my hon. Friend Lee Rowley who will lead on this; I am replying to today’s debate because he had previous duties. We are happy to take the lead as a Department and to organise a tripartite discussion between us, the Home Office and DCMS to try to work out whether we can iron out any wrinkles or make any tweaks to make the process a little easier to understand and implement.

I will say a few words on pubs and change of use. The shadow Minister, Justin Madders, was right and sensible to talk about the change in our high streets, and the change in demand for pubs and how and where we spend our leisure time. When people seek a change of use for a public house, it is to be expected that most local authorities, certainly in my experience, will ask for a number of reports to justify a positive determination of that application. They will certainly take into account the number of operational pubs in the area. They will seek verified reports of a sincere marketing campaign, where that pub asset has been advertised—has it been in the trade press or the local press, and so on? Were they seeking realistic offers, or were they trying to price it so far outside the market to effectively arrive at a position where they could not sell it as a going concern because they had been asking such a grossly inflated price?

If the applicant for the change of use does not satisfy any of those key tests—which, of themselves, provide a certain degree of comfort to residents and safeguards for those who use the assets—by definition, the presumption of a change of use is not to be given. As we know, no system is perfect, and it depends upon thorough analysis and the potential for buying in professional third-party advice to peer review those marketing documents. However, it is not an easy thing to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North has made a number of policy suggestions, and we will reflect on them. It is important to note, however, that there is always a temptation for Ministers to promise the Earth, as though with a stroke of a ministerial pen all problems will be erased and nothing bad will happen. Will buildings burn down? Yes, of course. We are not going to be able to eradicate that, but we need to make sure that the investigatory powers are there.

We also need to be careful, because there is a fine balance to strike—sometimes it would require the judgment of Solomon to do it—in the operation of the market. A freeholder can legitimately dispose of an asset, for a continuation of use within the prescribed use class or for a change of use, or to move it on to a further use if that building is deemed redundant. At the heart of what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley North and for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and indeed the shadow Minister, is that the community’s requirements and desires need to be taken into account as part of the evaluation process. As we know, so much of our high street and leisure time is changing. However, I suggest—I hope uncontroversially—that nobody wants to see, merely for the sake of retention, buildings retained that will fall into a state of disrepair and decay, and which are of no asset whatsoever to our high streets and communities and will often have a negative societal impact during that period of degradation.

I will be careful on listing because that falls within the purview of DCMS. It is an important point. It involves a process, and there are always going to be ways of speeding up that process to give greater clarity and certainty. I take the shadow Minister’s point on the need for a clearer definition of what we actually mean by a heritage pub. We have made great progress in the creation of assets of community value. They have made a significant contribution since they were introduced in 2011. Are they perfect? Is the mechanism un-clunky in all respects? Of course not. Could it be reformed or improved? Most definitely. That may well form the basis of conversations to be had with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North as we move forward.

In conclusion, this is a serious issue. My late father always used to say, “If you’re going to cheat, cheat fair.” I know that that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but most of our communities and constituents shy away from what looks to be sharp practice—something underhand, something designed specifically to frustrate and undermine a process of transparency and accountability. While none of us would resile from the human desire to generate a profit, sometimes that sharp practice, merely in the pursuit of profit, falls under that old phrase, the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, which you and I will remember, Mr Vickers, from the comments of previous politicians on a number of points.

I share the concerns, anxiety and upset of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North and his constituents about this serious issue. I reassert what I said at the start: we stand ready to help and to do what we can, between the three Departments, to try to ensure that we can limit, as much as we possibly can, these circumstances happening again. Unfortunately, however, the circumstances that he set out at the start of his speech mean that people will not see the return of the Crooked House as they knew and loved it. I read history at university; there are some buildings that speak of history and times, and one could only envisage the times that a pub from 1765 has seen, the trials and tribulations that it has survived and the conversations that it has eavesdropped upon. It is a huge and serious loss. We shall let the investigatory authorities do their job, but we stand ready to help my hon. Friend and other communities to ensure that such important community assets have the strongest protections that we can possibly derive.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North 3:47, 16 November 2023

I have been really encouraged by the comments from everybody today. Of course, a Westminster Hall debate would not be the same without a contribution from Jim Shannon and I thank him very much for his words. He certainly has pubs in his area that reflect the same characteristics that others have discussed today.

My hon. Friend Steve Tuckwell really captured it well, as did the Minister. While pubs offer great food and beverages and can be a point of contact for people coming together—and how important those points of contact are, especially for people, perhaps older generations, who have isolated lives, in a post-covid environment—they are also the community, and they are our history.

The shadow Minister, Justin Madders was very kind in his words towards me. He absolutely hit the nail on the head when he said that we need to be very clear about the definition of a heritage pub. I have not been successful in the private Member’s Bill ballot, so there will be a ten-minute rule Bill, no doubt. That definition is absolutely central, so the hon. Member was very perceptive with those comments.

I am really encouraged by what the Minister said. When I saw the huge community grief, anger and frustration in the hours and days that followed the burning down of the pub and its demolition, it was clear to me that I wanted to be visible, and to be almost the person at whom people could vent their anger. We have had lots of local community meetings. I have formed a committee to support me in that, made up of CAMRA and other people, including some admins of the Facebook group that I mentioned, existing pub landlords and past ones. I was clear that I will do everything I can, within the bounds that have been described today, to see justice served and the pub rebuilt brick by brick. We all know that it will not be exactly the same, but with today’s technology, and the support that has been offered by the nearby Black Country Living Museum, which has special expertise in rebuilding heritage buildings, I want to see the pub rebuilt.

The third commitment that I made to my community was to pursue legislative changes in the appropriate way to try to prevent this from happening again anywhere in the United Kingdom. Clearly, something needs to be done. On the preservation of building notice, I thank the Minister for his offer to write to me. When he does, perhaps he could also explain how quickly something could be implemented, which is the key issue for me. I mentioned the interaction between police, local authority and fire service. If a protection notice is not already there, it needs to be applied with immediacy. It is time critical, so I would like to understand that point better.

Everybody understands and accepts that we cannot design risk out completely, but we can remove the incentives from those who would want to go about things in the wrong way, and create many more incentives to stop them doing so. That is our role, and I feel very encouraged by the Minister’s offer to be the leading Department on this. I believe that from a planning perspective the chunk of it is there, but clearly DCMS and perhaps the Home Office have their part to play as well. I thank him for his offer, and thank you, Mr Vickers, for leading the way today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered heritage pubs.

Sitting adjourned.