Plans to convert Stapleton pub into housing are rejected by inspector

A PLANNING inspector has rejected plans to convert a former Stapleton pub into housing.

Campaigners fighting to save the Merchants Arms say they are “absolutely delighted” the inspector threw out owner Red Rock Developments’ plans, after Bristol City Council failed to make a decision – or contest the appeal.

Red Rock applied in 2021 for permission to change the pub’s use, “regularise” a six-bedroom house in multiple occupation (HMO) already being rented out, and extend a residential flat in the building on the corner of Stapleton Road and Averay Road.

The plans included a “function hall” the owners said would be available for community use.

By law councils have eight weeks – 13 for larger schemes – to decide planning applications.

Red Rock appealed last May because the council had not made a decision after 15 months.

But to win permission it had to prove either that the pub, which closed in December 2016, was “no longer economically viable”, or that a diverse range of other pubs existed locally.

Inspector Lewis Condé said Red Rock had not “satisfactorily demonstrated” that the pub was unviable, having supplied “no detailed information as to the pub’s financial performance prior to its closure”, no assessment of its trade potential or any “robust” information on how much it would cost to reopen it.

He said that while the pub might no longer be of interest to a national chain there were “several examples” of similar Bristol pubs trading successfully under independent ownership.

The inspector said a sale price of £975,000 quoted to potential buyers – £500,000 more than Red Rock paid in 2016 – was above its “true value” and had likely put off potential buyers.

He also found there were no other pubs within a 10-minute or 800m “reasonable walking distance”.

An application for costs by Red Rock was also refused.

The appeal was contested by the Colston Estate Community Association, residents who said they were “forced to fight this alone” when the council withdrew during the appeal process.

CECA led a campaign in 2018 to have the pub listed as an Asset of Community Value, giving it extra protection from development, and formed a community interest company to buy it in 2021.

Members of the Merchants Arms CIC outside the pub in 2021.

The inspector said CECA had “provided an extensive range of evidence to suggest that the Merchant Arms remains viable”, commissioning an expert report indicating that it could make a profit of £70,000 a year and had been “trading well” before it closed.

CECA said it had been “totally vindicated” by the inspector, who had “understood and accepted” its arguments.

The group said: “We are absolutely delighted with the outcome of the planning appeal. We have argued all along that no substantive evidence has ever been produced to show that our much-loved and greatly-missed local pub was not – nor could again be – viable.

“We remain firmly of the opinion that the Merchants Arms could have a viable future as a community hub, catering for a range of community needs and uses, with a pub at its core. The use to which the building is currently being put is unlawful.

“We were forced to fight this alone after the city council decided not to contest the appeal.

“We made detailed and lengthy submissions to the Planning Inspectorate, and we were very pleased to see that our arguments had been understood and accepted. The Inspector’s findings make it clear that he had diligently looked through all the evidence we had provided for this application, the previous two and the ACV hearings. We feel totally vindicated.”

The group said it felt “badly let down” by the council’s planning department, who had “severely undermined” any community buy-out by letting the case ‘drag on’ for years.

But they said: “We haven’t given up hope. The fight goes on.”

A Red Rock spokesman said: “We are assessing the comments made by the appeal inspector before considering the next steps toward bringing the building back into a use which benefits the community.”