Response to the Article in New Full Measure #138

PROTECTING OUR PUBS – OTLEY AND ACVs

Otley Pub Club – a response to the article in New Full Measure

 (At the end of 2016, the Leeds CAMRA official magazine ‘New Full Measure’ published a long article [which you can see here – page 27 onwards] about The Old Cock, which was critical of Otley Pub Club. It implied that we acted frivolously in applying for ACVs for all pubs and incurring Leeds City Council expenditure; that we were hypocritical in our treatment of some pubs; and that we were knowingly “interfering in the finances” of an Otley business. We have replied to them with this article for the Spring issue of their magazine.)

 

Otley is a famous pub town that is within the Leeds CAMRA branch area. It has in the past boasted more pubs per head of population than any town in England, and still has a remarkable twenty one pubs open and serving cask ale. Indeed, we are confident that Otley probably now has more handpumps per head of population and per pub than anywhere else in the country. We welcome Leeds CAMRA members to come and count them with us!

So it is disappointing for an article in Leeds CAMRA’s excellent magazine, New Full Measure, to criticise the volunteers of Otley Pub Club (many of whom are also Leeds CAMRA members) for seeking to follow CAMRA’s advice to “list our locals” and to stop our pubs being faced with conversion without needing planning permission. It is also disappointing that the article, in edition #138, was written without speaking to us first.

 

Otley Pub Club – a brief history

As that article started with a “history lesson”, let’s go back to October 2007 if we may. That was when The Summercross pub in Otley was closed not because it was a ‘failing’ pub, but because the owners (a company called Phase 7 Properties) cashed in to sell to a developer. The community Save our Summercross campaign fought hard and skilfully to see off a planning application to demolish it and build 14 town houses on the site. Sadly following this, despite genuine offers to reopen it as a pub, an application was made by a sister company for it to become a care home. This idea was approved by planners despite being opposed by many people and the local town council but, 8 years later, the building remains boarded up and the smart money is that at some stage there will be another attempt to get homes on the site.

After the blow of losing the Summercross when it was viable and wanted, followed by the Westbourne, the Yeoman and the Woolpack, it was decided that the community needed to work together to fight off any more such pub closures in our town, and Otley Pub Club was born. Leeds CAMRA would be the first to acknowledge that, as much as they like Otley, the branch can’t give Otley the focus it needs, so a more local group was needed: one that decided its own campaigns and priorities and focused on promoting the pubs as well as preserving them.

For your readers who might not know anything about Otley Pub Club, it was formed by a completely voluntary group of local residents and pub landlords. Although there have been personnel changes in the committee, they continue to promote, and try to protect, all the pubs in Otley. In the last 7 years they have been so successful that, although one pub – The Bridge – closed in 2014, all the remaining pubs are still open and trading despite pubs all over the UK closing at a rate of 20 to 30 a week! In fact we must be doing something right in protecting and promoting pubs, as Otley has been chosen as the location to open no fewer than 4 additional pubs in that time – including The Old Cock itself. The club is free to join, and we currently have over 400 members who receive an electronic newsletter from us twice a month containing details of forthcoming attractions in the pubs and in town.

We also run individual projects ourselves from time to time, both to promote the pubs themselves and to attract visitors to Otley – visitors who we hope will then spend some of their money in the pubs! These have included producing the Historic Otley Ale Trail leaflet; re-naming all the pubs in French for Le Grand Départ; and promoting a completely free Civil War battle re-creation last year. More details of these and other activities in which we have taken part to help promote Otley and its pubs can be found on our website – www.otleypubclub.co.uk

  

Why did we decide to list Otley’s locals?

In 2014 we were successful in encouraging Enterprise Inns to re-open The Black Horse Hotel, which had been closed for several weeks, and there were fears it might close its doors for good. The Hotel is a major landmark in the centre of Otley and, with the Tour de France about to go right past its doors, we realised that the sight of a dirty closed hotel on international TV would have done Otley’s reputation no good at all. So following that incident in July 2014, we decided to go ahead with the ACV applications to try to make sure none of the other pubs in Otley could be closed down, without the community at least being given an opportunity to save them.

 

Protecting Otley’s Pubs – Listing Our Locals

We’ve provided that background not just to blow our own trumpet, but to show that we genuinely care about all the pubs in town; that we always have done; and that we spend an awful lot of our own time and effort in doing so.

So it is both very unfair and actually quite wrong to suggest, as the article does, that somehow we acted frivolously in nominating all the pubs in town as Assets of Community Value. It is also factually wrong, as the article claims, that this was a ‘blanket application’. It certainly was not, nor is that allowed in the legislation that CAMRA nationally supported. No Local Authority would have accepted such a thing, as all cases have to be considered on their individual merit. As I’m sure many are aware, it takes a considerable time to research and produce even a single ACV application. OPC volunteers spent a considerable amount of their own time researching each one of the 20 individual applications that were completed.

There is also an implication in the article that this hard working small group of volunteers acted recklessly in causing local council expenditure of over £21,000 for the processing and application of the ACVs. To throw this figure at us is deeply ironic, for the cost per ACV was one unearthed by Greg Mulholland MP (who is a Leeds CAMRA member and a Top 40 CAMRA campaigner of all time as well as an Otley Pub Club member!) Greg had asked Leeds for the figure precisely to show that the Government should remove permitted development rights on pubs, rather than forcing communities to list any and all local pubs to know they would have a say over their future. So this is a fault of the Government and something that nationally Greg and CAMRA have being campaigning to change! But if we are going to be criticised for the cost of pursuing ACVs, then so should all active CAMRA branches and, indeed, CAMRA nationally for urging people to “list their locals”.

 

CAMRA’s Pub Matters campaign – List Your Locals!

We were simply following CAMRA’s national guidance and backing CAMRA’s ‘Pub Matters’ campaign. To quote from the national CAMRA website:-

 “List your Local: If you love your local pub and want to protect it from demolition or change of use, make sure to list it with your local Council as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). You can nominate as a CAMRA Branch, as an informal group of 21 local people or as a Parish Council”.

So we clearly do value our pubs and we value and support them all equally – that is in our constitution. Therefore we couldn’t pick and choose and, because we love them all, we listed them all. CAMRA’s national publication, What’s Brewing, every month has stories of more pubs getting better protection by being listed as ACVs.

The CAMRA guide to nominating pubs as Assets of Community Value offered no advice on which types of freehold or leasehold or third party-owned pubs should be targeted or left alone. It didn’t offer any advice on whether to speak to the owner or the landlord or anyone else associated with the pub before going ahead, and it certainly didn’t warn about any possible effect that an ACV might have on an individual property in terms of the ability of owners to borrow money.

What’s more, back in 2015, just a month after the Otley ACV applications had been handed in, the Government issued a press release on Community Pubs Day, that said “Ministers have called on people across the country to mark the day by ‘listing their local’ as an asset of community value so it too can be afforded extra protection.”  What’s more “The Department for Communities and Local Government has produced a ‘community asset certificate’ which is available to every listed local…..to hang behind the bar, giving landlords the chance to celebrate the fact their pub is prized so highly by those who matter the most, the patrons.” So we thought we’d done exactly the right thing, and that landlords would be proud to show their pubs were highly appreciated by the community. We are delighted that many are, even if the Old Cock, for reasons we understand and have discussed with them at length, are not.

We were faced with the prospect of considering a very large number of nominations; undertaking detailed research on the properties, their customers, and the goods and services they offered. We were complete amateurs, starting the process from scratch, learning as we went along, and without the benefit of any case law or detailed procedures to follow. It was impossible to predict which pubs might be under threat in the next 5 years, and/or which ones we wanted to concentrate on saving. Your article calls The Old Cock “One of the best pubs in the Leeds District”, and we would agree with you. It’s a great pub, so we included it precisely because we value it! And of course we value all our other pubs just as much: the country pubs and those in the town centre; the individual ones and the ‘chains’; the brand new ones and especially those dating back 5 centuries. To include here all the reasons for saving them all would be impossible.

 

The case of the Old Cock

Turning to the issues with the Old Cock, of which we are fully aware, the article gives no sense of the conversations we have had with Lee and Linda about this issue, since the listing and their complaint. We have discussed this with them at length in person and in writing and made it clear that we had no intention to cause any issues for them and have expressed our regret at the ones that have arisen which they are upset about. We certainly never wanted to do anything either to make them unhappy or to affect their ability to borrow money to spend on the pub, if that is the case.

We also took the decision not to oppose Lee and Linda’s appeal against the ACV listing (not mentioned in the article) and we have also given them an assurance that, due to their concerns, if Lee and Linda still own and run The Old Cock in 2020 (and we hope they do), we will not seek to apply a new ACV on their pub. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t consider any other ‘singleton freehold pubs’ for an ACV nomination, as the combination of different types of building, location, future prospects, forms of 2nd– and 3rd-party ‘ownership’ – and even the owners themselves – can lead to a multiplicity of potential threats.

The article makes a misleading statement when it says [referring to Lee and Linda] “should their personal circumstances change, through no fault of their own, they would find it very hard to sell the business as a going concern”. CAMRA nationally and the Government confirm that a pub can be sold as a going concern – to be operated as a pub – without the ACV being triggered, so there is no delay. In other parts of the country people and companies are buying pubs with ACVs on. Indeed Lee has told us that the Old Cock is worth more as a going concern than with any proposed change of use.

There is a suggestion in the article about our lack of support for the plans to establish the Old Cock in the first place. We always liked the idea of a proper freehouse locally owned; indeed this is what we basically hope will happen to most of our pubs. However, there was vociferous opposition to the opening of the Old Cock from some other landlords who saw a threat to their trade. For a club created specifically to support all pubs, it would have been completely inappropriate for us to ignore these views and directly support the application. One of our committee members however did strongly support the application individually – and like Leeds CAMRA, once it had opened, we were all delighted with the lovely new pub that Lee and Linda had created.

We have listened and have learnt from the situation at the Old Cock as well as having done all we can to tell Lee and Linda that we would never knowingly cause them any problems or concerns. Not realising those concerns at first, we were trying to show that we valued all the pubs and wanted to have a say over their future, if threatened. We were not able to forewarn owners of pubs before we did, as that would alert certain pubcos who’d try to block our plans and we couldn’t tell some owners and not others, or legally that could be used against us in attempts to unseat some applications. Also, all the implications of that action – in relation to each and every one of the 20 properties for which we were having to prepare a case – only became clear to us later. We know this issue has created some difficulties between Otley Pub Club and The Old Cock, which we hugely regret, but happily it hasn’t separated us completely and we are still delighted to support them and keen to work with them. Over the past two years, The Old Cock has taken part in the Otley Pub Club Victorian Alehouse competition during Otley Victorian Fayre for instance. The quality of their costumes has obviously been as good as that of their beers, as they won it in 2015 and came second in December 2016! If it is possible to re-build bridges between us, then maybe the publication of this statement could be the start of that.

 

Learning how best to use ACVs

We are learning all the time, as we know CAMRA branches who are active in pub preservation also are, and reviewing how best to use ACVs. With the particular need to focus on historic/well established pubs, it is our intention in future to apply a standard policy (yet to be determined) when reapplying for ACV status for Otley’s pubs if there is still no protection against conversion without planning permission. As we have stated, we certainly won’t relist the Old Cock (as Lee and Linda know).

This is partly in response to the suggestion that it seems odd that we might list a pub we had previously opposed – even if we believe we had good reasons for doing so at the time. We have a policy that in a town of so many pubs, with limited trade as any town has, we need the trade to be focused on the many great outlets we already have. So yes, we cannot initially support the opening of new pubs, as we fear Otley might be approaching a ‘tipping point’ where the number of pubs is not sustainable in a town of only 14,000 inhabitants – despite our best efforts to continue to attract more visitors to our ‘famous pub town’. However, if Leeds City Council decide to give it the go ahead, then it would be ludicrous for us not to invite it into the family of Otley Pub Club, as we did with  the Old Cock, then North Bar Social, Otley Taphouse and, very recently, the Stew and Oyster.

We are pleased that each of the new pubs has found an individual niche in the market. Each  brought something new to the pub culture in the town and all are doing well with dedicated and contented ‘regulars’ and an array of music, entertainment, social events, food and other offerings that already make them of value to the community they serve. We recognised that immediately, and nominated them as ACVs along with the more traditional Otley outlets. It still remains to be seen whether any of the older traditional pubs in town will permanently lose more customers – and whether those customers have moved on to other pubs, or just left for some other reason. We do however strongly believe that if any more shops or other non-pub premises open as bars in Otley – nice as they may be – it will put at risk the pubs we already have. I’m sure Otley’s landlords, both of historic and successful new pubs, would want to support that belief, and hopefully Leeds CAMRA would as well. So what we really need – and what people should more explicitly campaign for – is for our historic pubs to be in safe hands, owned and run by people who care – like Lee and Linda.

 

A better way – ending permitted development rights for pubs

The article states “The thing about ACVs is that they are a very useful tool when it comes to protecting threatened pubs”. This is not really the case, for the sad fact is that once a community or a CAMRA branch finds out that a pub is threatened, it is often too late to get an ACV listing. As we have seen in Otley and in Leeds, a pub can be shut overnight and then it is much harder to get an ACV and it may be gone for good.

There is one final important point to make, and that’s about the suggested changes in the final paragraph of the NFM article. Any changes to the ACV rules would of course have to be made to the existing legislation. As for nominators of ACVs being able to demonstrate the means to buy the business should it come up for sale, that goes against everything that CAMRA nationally are supporting. It is the sort of thing that pubco bosses are saying to try to retain their right to sell off pubs to supermarkets without communities having any say. In fact CAMRA advice in the leaflet referred to above says “It’s important to stress that if you put your name to listing a pub, you will be under absolutely no obligation to bid to buy the pub in the future.”

It’s also important to note that the ACV legislation doesn’t relate solely to pubs, nor was it ever meant to. If there is to be a serious campaign to sort out the ACV rules specifically with regard to pubs, it needs to be undertaken nationally, with an organisation like CAMRA taking the lead. As things stand, local groups like Otley Pub Club and CAMRA branches have no choice but to take whatever action seems appropriate at the time, and risk creating the sort of bad feeling that has arisen here. Which is why we return once again to the campaign to remove permitted development rights for pubs. This would mean that local communities and CAMRA branches no longer need to rely on ACVs as the only way to be sure a pub isn’t converted without planning permission. At the moment they are. So until we achieve that, ACVs are the only way any of us who care about pubs can stop the threat of any of our local pubs becoming a supermarket. So rather than criticising a group of volunteers who have done their best to value and protect their locals from this, we would hope in future Leeds CAMRA would work with us to get better protection for pubs in the planning system.

 

Andy FitzGerald

Chairman

Otley Pub Club

05 February 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

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