The Bromsgrove Advertiser reports a failed planning application to build houses on a Rubery pub. A good piece of routine local journalism, but a careless headline. The council refused the plans, not the demolition per se. So what? So, one can normally demolish without planning permission. Yet many believe, incorrectly, that councils allow or refuse demolitions through planning. Not so. And there are regular fusses over such things, like the Greyhound in Bromsgrove at the moment.
In fact, it’s normally up to the owner if they want to demolish their building. They just have to satisfy the council that they’re going to do it safely. The only way to ‘save’ property owned by someone else from being knocked down by that someone is to 1) get it listed by English Heritage or 2) buy it and then decide to not knock it down!
Or there is a third, slightly different option, which is to get a local community group like a parish council or similar to submit a nomination to have the pub listed by the council as an asset of community value. This means if it is put up for sale there can be a six-month moratorium giving time for ‘the community’ to raise the sale price and make a bid for the pub.
Asset of community value? Smells like horseshit
Well quite. Hence this brainfart: the fact a statutory process to protect assets of community value from market forces exists at all is an intriguing reflection of Britain, is it not?
We understand and accept how and why money works, and also the concept of value that cannot be commercialised or monetised. We understand the concept of a public or social good even as we further prioritise (fetishise, even) the private over the idea of ‘society’ or any collective identity.
“My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.”
Margaret Thatcher on her quote, “There’s no such thing as society”
As we employ more resources to create private gain and reduce private loss, we nonetheless understand the fundamental interconnectedness of our lives and we also understand, some buried deeper down than others, that concepts of public or social good bear little relationship to our quests for private gain – if, indeed, some social good in a thing can be agreed to exist at all.
Thus we come – and democratically, through our government – to call some things assets of community value. These tangible things, things with inherent value, things that may or may not return private profits but certainly yield social ones that improve the balance sheet of the souls of people that use them.
In recognition of this we have put in place institutional infrastructure to make the invisible hand (bollocks!) of the market feel the presence of an otherwise unlucrative, and therefore unfelt, public good these things provide. The availability of a thing that brings social value is a weak sensation that the invisible hand (bollocks!) would normally barely feel, but when it comes to pubs and other useful things there is a catalyst for it that drives that weird outmoded democracy we cling to in the face of all evidence and money: angst.
Angst catalyses our fight to protect such assets from the march of progress: angst caused by our certain knowledge that these pubs, these assets of community value, are products of a past never to be repeated. They are artefacts of a half-remembered Britain that worked on different rules, to which half of us clamour to return in any case. But we cannot, and they are irreplaceable, and we know it.
This is why the fight, ostensibly against turning an unwanted and unneeded thing (a crap failing pub) into a wanted and needed thing (homes, always homes), is so unusually coherent and collective. We have as a society agreed legal processes that protect the failing pub that has ended up for sale and redevelopment just because no one goes there. And then through our angst, little sparks of energy arc from assets of community value to zap the invisible hand (bollocks!) of the market through our collective action.
This is because deep down we understand that we’ve created conditions that ensure no such pub will ever be built again. Whatever social good that pub can be said to provide, its loss would be permanent. And we know it.
We choose to stay at home now. We can pipe almost everything that we used to need public houses for into our private homes (warning! Metaphor). We’ve made positive public policy choices, from taxation to planning and licensing regimes, that prioritise private life over public life. Anyway, what the on-trade has lost in this regard, retail trade has gained.
Land is unavailable. When we build homes we pack them in. There is no space for antiquated public houses. Suburban estates don’t want pubs built in them, and there might be one by a main road nearby. So few suburban people actually go to pubs that after all, you only need one big food-led ‘pub’ per big-ass estate anyway. It’s probably a Harvester.
Which brings us to licenses, of which new ones are effectively impossible to get near homes. We will only really license a new pub in a community if it’s more a restaurant with incidental alcohol, like your Harvesters or Two for Ones or whatever. Wet-led pubs are drinking destinations. Wet-led pubs create drunk people and should now be in urban centres with the infrastructure to deal with drunk people. No-one wants drunk people near their house, the noisy bastards. We want our wet-led pubs away from our homes. This may be bollocks, but it’s not without a grain of truth: an irritating grain that has created the pearl we know as licensing laws.
We have dug the hole for our pubs, and we are pushing them into that hole, and as they fall in we know that we somehow wish they wouldn’t, and we pretend that they are assets of community value, and we wring our hands over their loss, and we protest the local council for failing to Do Something.
Well. I take off my hat to anyone that can run a pub outside a town centre without going bust in the era of Netflix and much cheaper off-license booze.