Whilst the need for more housing continues to grab headlines on a daily basis, word is also spreading about the importance of pubs in combatting loneliness, building social relationships and offering a heart to a community. Local authorities and central government are now taking steps to protect such assets through the planning system.

As legislation currently stands, unless permitted development rights are removed by condition or an article 4 direction, or the property is an ACV as referred to further below, pubs can be demolished or changed to use as shops, restaurants or cafes or other temporary uses without the need for a planning application (although prior approval is needed for a demolition).

If a pub is listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV), the above permitted development rights are removed, but (whilst a majority of existing ACVs have been placed on pubs) getting an asset listed can be a time consuming process and must be repeated every 5 years to benefit from continuing protection, so campaigners have been arguing for some time that more needs to be done.

Some local authorities have listened and have taken matters into their own hands. Both London Boroughs of Wandsworth and Southwark have recently issued 'article 4 directions' removing permitted development rights from a number of pubs in their areas. Those directions will prevent changes of use, demolition and certain alterations to the relevant pubs without an express planning permission. Not only does this give the community a right to have their say on any development proposals, it also means that the local authority can consider the plans against their development plan policies and balance what is right for the area.

In the meantime, the Neighbourhood Planning Bill is due to have its third reading in the House of Lords next week. If the current drafting makes it to the final cut, this legislation would have the effect of removing pubs from use class A4 and making them sui generis, effectively meaning that any change of use to or from a 'drinking establishment' would require specific planning consent. The Bill further proposes that permitted development rights to demolish pubs would be removed. This then would put the work done by the likes of Wandsworth and Southwark onto a national footing.

Debate about the above Bill in the House of Lords to date has referred to pubs being the heart of the community and a much-loved part of British life. Of course, even with the best intentions the above proposed changes do not mean that a pub is bound to thrive. They cannot make people use a pub and they cannot stop developers approaching owners with residential development proposals (for which they would have needed planning permission in any case) and promises of big money. If a business has become unviable or a decision has been made to close a pub down for some other reason, there is nothing the planning system can do to force it to stay open. What it can do, however, is protect pubs against being an easy target for retail development and perhaps even increase the take up of community projects to save them.