The campaign to save the Robin Hood public house has got off to a cracking start, but much needs to be done. The key to the future of the site depends on the recommendations made by officers of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to the planning committee in respect of a planning application.
A key document is the Tunbridge Wells Borough Local Plan 2006 and the concept contained within it of 'neighbourhood centres'. Policy CR13 states:
Proposals that would result in the loss of a community facility...... will not be permitted unless it can be demonstrated that suitable alternative provision is available within the defined centre or that:
(1) In the case of commercial enterprises, it can be clearly demonstrated that the facility is no longer viable;
Policy CR13 lists a public house as a community facility.
The Robin Hood lies within a neighbourhood centre, so Policy CR13 applies.
I would argue that there is no suitable alternative provision available within the defined centre, indeed there is no suitable alternative provision anywhere close to the defined centre.
However, note the 'or'. An applicant for planning permission will succeed if it can be clearly demonstrated that the facility is no longer viable. In other words even though it can be demonstrated that suitable alternative provision is not available, the economic argument (if made) will prevail.
So, the battleground will be around the words 'clearly demonstrated that the facility is no longer viable'.
What will the planning committee accept as clearly demonstrated - recent financial performance of the pub? This raises a number of issues. Clearly there is an incentive for the owners to show the pub is no longer viable. How are the figures to be challenged?
In demonstrating that an existing use is not viable, applicants must produce evidence that genuine and sustained efforts to promote, improve and market the facility at a reasonable value have failed.
Of course, a planning committee may ignore policies if it wishes (and gives reasons) and it must be mindful of the opinions of local people. Hence the importance of starting a petition.
The campaigners wish to see the pub re-open. However, should the owners' planning application fail and the pub does re-open, how long will it be before it becomes clearly not viable and the whole planning process starts again?
Two possible avenues to explore.
1. A community co-operative is formed to run the pub and it takes a lease from the owners
2. A community interest company is formed, which likewise takes a lease.
Either way any profits would be ploughed back into the community, by way of a dividend to members of a co-operative, or by way of expenditure on community projects/activities in the case of a CIC.
It might be possible to hive off the function room to a separate organisation and attract grant funding for its development.
The local housing association is quoted in the local press as follows:
We are aware that the Robin Hood is valued by many local residents. While we are not considering buying the land, we would be happy to support any attempt to keep the pub as a community asset.
Fine words. The campaigners should ask the housing association to clarify the extent of the support it will give.
Of course, we can but hope another pub group buys the site and re-opens the pub.