Community-owned pubs are the only segment of pub ownership that hasn't seen a single closure in recent years. So is this the golden age of the community-owned pub?
According to the Plunkett Foundation, more than 1,250 communities have registered their local as an asset of community value (ACV) under community rights, but to date only around 140 have purchased their pub. These success stories of communities fighting back and saving their locals, are truly inspiring though – and show it can be done.
Stories such as that of The Duke of Marlborough, in Somersham, Suffolk.
Driving into Somersham takes you along a country lane to a cluster of houses. This could be any village in England. Sitting proudly at the centre of this small community is the 500-year-old Duke of Marlborough public house – saved from closure by its locals.
The Duke is a lovely example of how a community got together to save its pub.
The pub closed in 2014 and it looked destined to be converted into residential properties. But a local doctor, Sarah Caston, set up the "Save the Duke" campaign to try to keep it as a pub. After a public meeting was held and a steering group set up, a registered company was established as a Community Benefit Society, whereby shareholders own the pub and the (democratically elected) management committee run it on their behalf.
The pub was purchased just over a year ago, refurbished and has now become a sustainable co-operative business. It is a wonderful story that has been played out more than 130 times across the UK, according to data from CAMRA and Pub is the Hub.
The current chairman of the management committee, Dave Thorne, lives opposite the pub. "In the early days there was a lot of enthusiasm – but it took a long time to get from there to where we are now," he says."I'm sure there are some who would think twice now about being involved if they had known how much work it would be."
But he smiles: "It builds community spirit that I have never seen before – and it's about gritting your teeth and not giving up."
Mike Shelmerdine, a member of the committee, says the volunteers were crucial to getting the pub off the ground – and getting the funding across the line."We had people with a number of different backgrounds helping on the committee and in the pub," he says. "You need people willing to do that. Take the plumber, he was vital – it's great business for them too, he's got loads of work off the back of helping out."
Family festivities at The Duke
It takes all sorts
Sitting around the pub table with members of the committee, you can see what Mike means about skills. Local resident Frances Brace is a PR expert with a background in beer, and Maggie James has a background in fundraising management. There are craftspeople and someone who owns a hop farm. Having such people fills in the gaps with the kind of people a professional pub company would normally have.
The biggest factor in the success of community owned pubs though – and something you hear time and time again – is the
support from the "community of Community Benefit Societies" (CBS).
Dave says: "There is a real network across the country of other people in the same boat as us who want to help. We visited a community-run pub and that was really useful in our journey and understanding the issues at hand."
A good example of another person benefiting from such advice is Jonny Grey, who heads the campaign to save The Shrewsbury Arms in Kingstone, Staffordshire. They are at the other end of the spectrum from the Duke – just starting on the journey to community ownership after the pub closed last year and hoping to be in a position to put an offer of purchase this spring.
"Most of our help came from other CBS, and the societies were keen to help share their experience in a much bigger way," says Jonny. "There really is a community of community-owned pubs – and I think this will be invaluable going forward for them to keep thriving."
Like Dave, though, Jonny warns it is hard work. "You basically need a core six people for whom it is a full-time job, and then an additional six on the committee to help out," he says. "Do not underestimate the amount of work that needs to be done."
Halloween at The Duke
Know who's boss
What does Dave think is the most important thing to get right when running a community-owned pub?
"Make sure you have the skills required – and also make sure to rotate the committee. It is always good to have a fresh pair of eyes looking at what has been going on."
"It's also crucial to have a clear hierarchy of management to stop everyone piling in with their requests. People come to me as the chairman and I put forward suggestions to Kevin, our manager."
This is Kevin Long, the pub manager and a hospitality professional with 40 years of experience. He was chosen by the committee
from a strong field of applicants.
Kevin says the philosophy of being community owned runs through the whole pub, including the food and drink offer. But this is a business – and it needs to attract customers beyond the locals."We have our own branded lager thanks to Adnams and our food is locally sourced, including meat supplied from a local butcher," Kevin says. "We can trace the food all the way back to the farm."
He laughs: "Actually, we had a problem with the steaks and went back to the butcher, who went back to the farmer, and we were able to identify the cow itself."
Beef Cheek served at The Duke
But surely the committee members – and those who have personally invested – are often asking to have their favourite beer on tap or food on the menu? Kevin smiles wryly: "It's not been too bad – now with Dave as chair we are working well together, but in the early days there were some requests. We rotate the beers a lot and we have worked with the community on the food menu."
The truth is that this isn't a normal business – as is clear when I step into the pub. In an isolated rural community, it is a safe space for vulnerable residents and for women to come in by themselves.
As Frances Brace, the aforementioned PR consultant, beer expert and local resident on the committee, says: "I wouldn't always feel comfortable going into a pub as a woman by myself, but here it is completely different. There is always someone from the community and the campaign here to talk to."
Mike agrees when I say it is a bit like being in your own living room: "The people who work behind the bar are volunteers and locals to the community. We have all got to know each other well."
On the Wednesday before my visit to the pub, there was a quiz night. They had to turn 40 people away, I'm told, because the place was rammed. I'm gobsmacked. It doesn't take an expert to realise the incredible achievement of a rural pub in a community of several hundred people having to turn away people midweek on a cold, wet, February night.
Pubs can still be the lifeblood of their villages. Here is living proof.
Where to get support
- Plunkett Foundation
This body, which supported both The Duke and The Shrewsbury Arms, has the More than a Pub programme, which is a three year "end to end" scheme to help communities buy pubs, and includes cross-work with national community-focused groups and finance firms. It enables locals to build up a finance package of loans and grants to make the dream of owning their village pub a reality.
Tom Stainer, chief executive of CAMRA, says the campaign body focuses specifically on making pubs assets of community value (ACV). He told Inapub: "While we are unable to provide funding for buyouts, we offer advice and information on how to save pubs from closure and work closely with the Plunkett Foundation to support local communities along this process."
- Pub is the Hub
A spokesperson told Inapub that groups should consider all options, including the co-operative model of ownership, leases or tenancy agreements. It also publishes a guidance pack for communities and has a new initiative with the BII to offer a year's free membership and support – available to download here.