It is perhaps not too surprising, but it appears there are few businesses that matter more to communities than their local pubs. Further evidence has come in the last month in Cumbria with one village pub reopening under co-operative ownership and another pressing ahead with plans to do the same later in the year.
Such is the success of the co-operative pub model it is no longer seen as the novelty it perhaps was when another Cumbrian pub, the Old Crown in Hesket Newmarket was saved from closure in 2002 by a co-operative made up of local people and other supporters.
The two latest pubs to follow the Old Crown’s example, and to be inspired by its success, are the Fox and Hounds in Ennerdale Bridge and the Butchers Arms in Crosby Ravensworh. And while both are at different stages of their co-operative journeys, both have a similar story to tell.
Retired teacher Peter Maher has acted as project manager for the opening of the Fox and Hounds. He says the closure of the village pub was the latest setback for the village and it spurred the community into action.
“Ennerdale Bridge is made up of only around 200 dwellings and over a protracted period of time it had lost its shop, its post office and its bus service,” says Peter. “A number of community events had been organised where villagers discussed their priorities and expectations. And then, just before Christmas, the pub closed with the landlord repossessing the building from the previous tenant.”
It was at this point the villagers approached Peter and asked him to lead a bid to save the pub. He adds: “We spoke to the owner and he was very keen on the idea of community ownership. He recognised it as a potentially very stable business option, but his economic urgency meant he could only allow us ten days to decide whether the community would be in a position to take the pub on.”
A hastily arranged public meeting was held at the village church and around 130 people turned up — by far the largest congregation the church had seen for some time!
Julian Ross from the Old Crown addressed the meeting and explained how the buy-out of that pub had revitalised the village and when a vote was taken at the end of the night there was overwhelming support for the idea of establishing a co-operative and selling community shares.
A target of £67,000 from shares was set and that figure was raised in just eight days. The total now stands at more than £83,000 from 182 members. Peter says that while the tight deadline helped to focus the mind it also created some practical difficulties: “Banks aren’t geared up for organisations needing to open a bank account so quickly and grant making bodies who won’t fund projects that are already up and running find it hard to believe that you can move so fast.”
But while others struggled with deadlines, the local community was ready for the challenge. A volunteer army of more than 100 people set about cleaning and decorating the pub and rescuing the beer garden from its pitiful state before the pub reopened for business under community ownership on April 4th — six weeks after that first meeting.
And Peter believes that for the community, seeing what it has achieved, the pub’s reopening will only inspire them to greater things. He says: “Already the reopening of the pub has helped to revitalise relationships within the village. When there is no central hub for a village, people begin to withdraw to their own homes and miss out on day-to-day interaction. The pub has already helped to revive the community at that personal level.
“But it has also brought about a massive sense of empowerment — people have seen what is possible and started to believe in themselves. A feasibility study will be published later in the year and I have little doubt that the village shop will be the next to reopen.”
The Big Society at work? Not according to Peter: “I don’t really link what we’ve done to the Big Society. It’s just people feeling strongly enough about a loss of facilities that is affecting their lives and realising that they’re the only people who can bring them back.”
It is an inspiring tale — and one which villagers in Crosby Ravensworth will take heart from. They have unveiled plans to buy, renovate and re-open their local, the Butchers Arms.
Having had the offer to buy the pub accepted last month, the newly formed co-operative — Lyvenet Community Pub Ltd — has just launched its prospectus to attract more than 150 members to become co-owners of the pub.
Like Ennerdale Bridge, Crosby Ravensworth has no shop, post office or other pub. And David Graham — one of the six directors of the co-op — explains that the pub is about more than having somewhere to drink: “Re-opening the pub will put the heart back into our village. We aim to re-open in summer and will work closely to support other community facilities and provide additional village services, eventually selling basic supplies and local produce.
“We have had an incredible amount of interest so far with people backing our plans and investing between £250 and £20,000 to become members and have a say in the running of the pub.
“It has been a successful business before and we believe the co-op business model will give this pub a sustainable future — providing a valuable service and warm welcome to, members and customers, residents and visitors alike.”
Dave Hollings of Co-operative and Mutual Solutions has been providing business support to both ventures, having previously assisted with the forming of the Old Crown co-op. He believes exciting times lie ahead: “When we just had the Old Crown it was easy to dismiss it as a one-off or as a good anecdote. Now that we have at least five co-operative pubs either open, or planning to open, it’s easier to see it as a model.”
And he says it’s a model that makes sense: “Often the owner or tenant of a pub has a fixed idea of what sort of pub they want to run, but they don’t bother to ask the customers.
“If the pub is in the hands of the community, then the customers can set their priorities for that pub. It’s not really a surprise to find that when you provide what the community wants, business tends to do better. You have customers saying ‘this is what we want; if you give us that we will support it’.”
Dave Hollings believes there may be different reasons for the emergence of co-operative pubs in Cumbria: “The rural nature of the pubs may be a factor in that when a town or city centre pub closes there’s normally another one just down the road whereas in these rural villages when the pub goes, what else is there?
“I think it might also just be an accident of geography as neither the Butchers Arms or the Fox and Hounds are too far from the Old Crown, and everyone is now very familiar with that story.
“We have another co-operative pub, the George and Dragon in Hudswell just over the North Yorkshire border, so we’re in danger of turning the A66 into the longest pub crawl in Britain.”
The pubs are among a growing number of co-operative ventures to have received assistance from The Co-operative Enterprise Hub. The Hub, backed by £7.5 million from the Co-operative Group, provides advice, training and consultancy to support the creation and growth of member-owned enterprises throughout the UK.
It aims to support ‘a co-op a day’ throughout 2011 and Michael Fairclough, Head of Community and Campaigns at the Group, believes pubs offer great opportunities for co-op involvement: “The closure of a pub can represent more than just another business closing — a well run ‘local’ is an important part of the social life of a community.
These pubs are great examples of how determined communities can take a lead and have a say in the running of businesses and services important to their lives.”