March of the Big Mac shuts village pubs

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THE GOLDEN arches of McDonald's are replacing traditional pub signs across Britain as the giant hamburger chain exploits land use laws allowing it to convert public houses into fast food outlets. More than 30 communities have lost their local to the multinational, and more pubs are earmarked for conversion.

The McDonald's buying policy has allowed it to circumvent the need for local authority approval, because no new planning permission is needed to convert a pub to a restaurant.

Now there is growing concern about the powerlessness of local authorities to stop the company's relentless expansion.

McDonald's has encountered fierce public opposition as it reaches saturation point in the high street and competition is intensifying, with a survey this month showing Britons spend pounds 7m a day on junk food, more than any other nation in Europe.

The fast food giant plans to increase its UK outlets to 1,000, with 100 openings this year. But the emphasis has shifted to suburban or rural sites, close to major traffic routes, where pub conversions are convenient .

The irony is that these conversions come just when the pub industry's efforts to shrug off its "darts and smoke-filled saloon bar" image and open its doors to families are paying off.

Nicky Gavron, chairwoman of the Local Government Association (LGA) planning committee, says pubs are important local landmarks and valuable focal points for communities.

"McDonald's is a monoculture - it sells one kind of food in one kind of place and attracts a certain clientele, and pubs are much more inclusive," she says. "People tend to walk to pubs, but they will drive from a much wider area for McDonald's."

John Norman, spokesman for CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, says: "With ongoing problems in the [pub] industry, people will continue to sell if the price is right. Pubs are a soft target but once they are gone they are lost for everybody. The sort McDonald's is targeting tend to be large and may not be doing well. But pub companies have taken on similar locations and turned them around, so there is an alternative."

The LGA and London planners have already asked the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions about tightening regulations.

"We are very concerned about environmental deterioration and the loss of local amenities," said John Lett, of the London Planning Advisory Committee. "We want the Government to introduce distinct categories for restaurants, takeaways and pubs which require planning permission for a change of use."

Ian Taylor, the Tory MP for Esher and Walton, is also pressing for change. His constituents in the London commuter village of Hinchley Wood launched a campaign against McDonald's taking over their local. He says: "The company has no interest in the existing community and makes its decisions purely on a commercial basis of how many people it can attract from the area. That is understandable in the high street, but it's not the same in a village."

One recent conversion was The Keep on the outskirts of Bracknell, Berkshire, close to an M3/ M4 link road. Residents, councillors and the Tory MP for Bracknell, Andrew Mackay, protested when they learnt their local had been sold to McDonald's. But although planners tried to impose restrictions on signs and lighting most were overturned at appeal.

"The pub was very pleasant and we felt this was the wrong place for McDonald's," says Shelagh Dicks, a retired social worker. "It is next to a beautiful area of parkland which is the only social amenity we have.

"Now all the people, especially from the old people's homes, who used to go there to relax, can hardly get in because of the number of cars parked around the entrance."

A spokesman for McDonald's said 26 pubs had been bought and reopened as fast food outlets and six have been demolished and replaced with eateries. Eight pubs were converted in the last two years and the company says it is "looking at" six additional locations.

The hamburger chain has also targeted independent pubs. The family that runs the White Lion, in East Grinstead, Sussex was approached by an agent acting on behalf of "a client" in 1996. Shah Afshar agreed it was "financially more prudent" to sell and the client made an offer Mr Afshar felt was far higher than the value of the pub.

But, once the buyer was revealed as McDonald's, a loose coalition of traders, environmentalists and pub regulars launched a vociferous campaign against the sale, and the Afshar family decided against it.