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Opinion: Small numbers of objections from neighbours should not be allowed to hamper thriving businesses, says Rhys Griffiths

Having covered my fair share of council planning committee meetings over the years, I’ve always felt a smidgen of sympathy for those elected officials tasked with deciding on the fate of applications both large and small.

How do you adequately balance the opinions and needs of both the wider community and those more immediately affected by your decision for or against? Councillors are often damned if they wave plans through, and damned if they don’t.

Reporter Rhys Griffiths visits Unit 1 in West Hythe for Hidden Gem feature
Reporter Rhys Griffiths visits Unit 1 in West Hythe for Hidden Gem feature

This difficulty in balancing often diametrically opposed viewpoints came to mind in reading our report today concerning a retrospective planning application for a beer garden at much-cherished venue in a small hamlet outside Hythe.

Much as we’d expect a planning committee member to declare any interest, I had better declare mine. I am a huge fan of Unit 1, a small pub in West Hythe well known for serving excellent locally-brewed beers and hosting regular pop-up street food menus. I even went as far as singing its praises as a hidden gem in these very pages. So it’s fair to say I am instinctively well-disposed to the owners’ plans to make official the outdoor seating first introduced at the height of the pandemic.

So it seems are many of the venue’s regulars, who have written in great numbers to the district council supporting the application which would formalise the business’ extremely popular canalside beer garden.

That outpouring of approval runs into opposition from locals living in this quiet community along the banks of the Royal Military Canal. They say the addition of outdoor seating, initially as a measure to allow Unit 1 to reopen while respecting social distancing, has had a negative impact on their lives thanks to noisy patrons packing the beer garden, particularly during the summer months.

My immediate instinct is to rail against these nimbys and dismiss their complaints out of hand. Many sectors of the economy are struggling, the hospitality industry more than most. Inflation has sent costs soaring, the cost-of-living crisis means many have less disposable income to spend on going out.

Reporter Rhys Griffiths visits Unit 1 in West Hythe for Hidden Gem feature
Reporter Rhys Griffiths visits Unit 1 in West Hythe for Hidden Gem feature

Pubs and restaurants are, unfortunately, finding themselves deluged by local opposition to almost any plans to expand and grow their businesses – comically, in some cases, from people who have made a conscious decision to move into the very heart of our towns and cities, only to then object to anything that attempts to help these areas thrive.

My sympathy is greater for those in West Hythe, a sleepy little place where perhaps you would not expect to find a sizable beer garden capable of hosting scores of people into the evening. I suspect many living within earshot of Unit 1 are retirees who probably never dreamt there would one day be such a thriving, popular venue on their doorstep.

Which is why I am glad not to be sitting on any committee tasked with untangling these competing arguments. But if I were, I am afraid I would insist that at every opportunity we should be promoting enterprise, and assets which benefit hundreds or thousands, over the objections of a relative handful of locals.

I can already predict the backlash that this statement is going to provoke in the comments below the line and on social media. How would you like a pub at the bottom of your garden? Would you want drunken revellers stumbling past your front gate at all hours? I know the arguments, I’ve heard them over and over and over again.

But as a society we should wherever possible be tipping the scales in favour of businesses that want to succeed and grow, creating both vital local jobs and amenities that serve the wider community. It would be an absolute tragedy to live in a society where the vociferous opposition of a few shuts down the places enjoyed by the many.

The owners of Unit 1 say that shutting their beer garden would force them to close. Let’s hope it’s not the council bowing to the nimbys, rather than the already significant challenges of running a successful hospitality business, that kills it off.

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