Anne Main welcomes changes to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill that removes permitted development rights from pubs and raises concerns about the loss of office space in St Albans.
It is a delight to speak at this point in the debate, because I want to say to the Minister that the whole point of the other place is to make us think again, and he has thought again and he has listened. This is a wonderful solution that will protect areas such as mine.
I have the most beautiful constituency, and it is rumoured that I have the most pubs per square mile, although other areas dispute that. St Albans is an historical pilgrimage city and a coaching town, and we have pubs on just about every corner—if you can’t find a pub in St Albans, you’re not trying.
We have many historical pubs that have found it incredibly difficult to make their living in today’s hard times. I went to see the Chancellor about the effect of business rates on pubs. I am hugely glad that he listened, because many of the pubs in my constituency are incredibly small—almost the size of people’s front rooms—as they came along in a different era, and many are listed as well, which adds another dimension to the problem of making them viable. The owner of The Boot pub spent five years working with the planning system to try to get various alterations to his kitchen, because the pub’s listing made it very difficult for him to get that work done. I therefore welcome enormously anything that can make our pubs more viable and give them a sounder footing for the future.
The headquarters of CAMRA is in Hatfield road in St Albans, and it has been wonderful in this matter. I pay tribute to CAMRA and all those who have worked with it to ensure that the Minister listened to the thoughts expressed in the Lords and the representations of Members of Parliament, and came up with a solution that is pragmatic and elegant, as I think the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) described it. It now builds on the intentions expressed in the Lords, which is hugely important.
May I point out to any Members who have not visited my constituency that we are having a big tourism week from 31 March? One of my jobs that day will be to visit Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, an immensely historical pub. It is one of the pubs that claims to be the oldest pub, and they all contribute to the tourism offering. Not knowing that this elegant solution was going to come through today—which I am pleased to welcome and support—I wanted to make sure I went along and gave all my support to my pubs, which contribute enormously to our tourism offering. One of the pubs in St Albans, the White Hart immediately opposite the entrance to the cathedral, featured on “Most Haunted Live!”; another part of our tourism offering is that we have a very good ghost run, as St Albans is so historical.
I encourage people to go and visit their pubs. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) said, they are so much more than a place to buy a particular beer; they offer a huge historical pattern, and if they were removed it would in some regards be the death of my constituency. I can honestly say that people come to my constituency and say they cannot get over what a marvellous impression the pubs give, and I pay tribute to the many operating in St Albans to the highest possible standards.
I also want to make a few comments on what the Minister said about the permitted development rights on office space. I am concerned that we are losing so much office space. In an area such as mine, where the average house price is £550,000, there is nothing more lucrative than turning pubs—which we are now protecting—and offices into housing, and there was a rush to do so under the permitted development rights. I acknowledge that there were lots of areas of the country where offices were lying idle and it was difficult to convert them, but I do not have that problem in St Albans. We have lost 150,000 square feet of office space already, with another 50,000 or 60,000 square feet of office space in the offing to go, and businesses are telling me that they cannot find alternative premises. When businesses’ leases are running out, they find that they cannot have certainty about renewing them, and there is a worry that offices will disappear.
We in St Albans do have a lot of work being done online, and I also have a lot of small businesses, but AECOM in Victoria street has 70,000 square feet of office space with the lease coming up for renewal, and if such companies cannot secure an article 4 direction because they in any way become rationed, that will be a worry to me. I understand why the Minister says a local authority needs to show that it has its housing allocation sorted before it can put on an article 4 direction, but, sadly, we in St Albans, with a 1994 district plan, have the worst of all possible worlds: I do not have my housing allocation sorted and I have offices disappearing. When I addressed the chamber of commerce about two months ago, business after business told me that they would have to consider their future position in St Albans if this hollowing out and selling off of the family silver, as it were, continued.
I therefore make a plea to the Minister. In areas such as St Albans, the most lucrative thing anyone can ever do is close a business and make it into a house or a block of flats. I do not want to have a city that is devoid of the vibrancy of businesses or office space. I have made representations to the Minister about this before, and I thank him for listening about the pubs, and I thank the Chancellor for giving an additional £300 million to help support pubs, but I do not want my constituency to fall in the gap between the new thought processes under the article 4 direction and the permitted development rights removal on offices.
I welcome the new drift from the Government towards supporting pubs. Too often they have been seen as not important parts of our heritage, but they are vital to places such as St Albans. I am delighted that the Government have been listening all around—well done to the Minister for that.