All good in the 'hood

Community ownership is not only saving great pubs, but also repurposing them as hubs of community life, finds Hugh Thomas


This story begins as many of the good ones do: Sitting with a pint of Brockwell IPA in one of my locals. In this case, The Ivy House in Nunhead, South East London. Nothing looks too extraordinary about the place – much like numerous others, there’s a nice 1930s wood veneer. Lead-lined windows. Generous Sunday roasts. Grey-haired men mumbling about the ‘good old days’, either with regards to the pub, or the current abundance of keg beer. Apart from a few facets, it’s quite the usual. Except for one thing – not one person, or two, own it. Technically, 371 do, each a member of the local community.

In 2012, the pub, then named the Newlands Tavern, was destined to become a block of flats. The community, backed by constituent MP Harriet Harman, lobbied for the building to be listed as Grade II by English Heritage. While they succeeded, Enterprise Inns would shortly close their pub and sell it on to the developers. Appealing to the council, locals managed to get the pub listed as an Asset of Community Value, allowing a short window for locals to buy it up. They raised £1million to do so, and it became London’s first community-owned public house.

The thinking was that, if residents had a financial stake in the pub, then they’d be more inclined to use it and improve it. The rationale worked. After the keys changed hands, work commenced to repair the building, refresh the cellar, put in new draught lines, refurbish the residential space upstairs, and generally bring the building back to life. The pub hadn’t been in better shape for a long time, with regards to both its walls and what they contained: it now runs a regular programme, from the common formula of live gigs, pub quizzes, and open mic nights, to the less-than-usual: yoga lessons, knitting sessions, magic shows, burlesque, and pop-ups from local florists, potters and jewellers.

This is not far removed from what’s happening around the country. Pubs, as we all know, are well on the decline. Around the country local communities are taking the issue into their own hands, buying their locals up themselves, doing what they can to keep their favourite places to drink alive.

At the moment, there are more than fifty pubs in the country run by their local community. Mostly this is the case in rural areas – only two exist, for instance, in London (Antwerp Arms, in Tottenham, is the other one). If there was any way of comparing it, the rise in number of taprooms and bars in cities is inversely proportional to the decline of pubs in rural areas. Thing is, the problem’s nothing new. Pubs have found themselves under threat for decades – remember when more boozers started offering food, which allowed for higher mark-ups, to tempt people in and, more broadly, try to reinvigorate pub culture? That was largely back in the nineties, when the word ‘gastropub’ was first coined.

But, thirty years on, pubs are arguably watching over their backs more than ever. The Ivy House was one of the first pubs in the country to be granted Asset of Community Value status. In the six years since, quite a few more have joined them. ‘In our last report,’ Ashley Sellwood, communications officer at the Plunkett Foundation tells me, ‘we’ve recorded 1,250 pubs registered as ACV. Of the community-owned pubs, we’ve got a one hundred percent success rate. That means none that we know of have ceased trading.’ The Plunkett Foundation, a social organisation supporting rural businesses and the communities involved with them, are key players in the battle to financially support locals in saving their pub. As are CAMRA, and Pub is The Hub – a group of advisors offering licensees help in diversifying a pub’s range of services and re-establishing public houses as the centre of the community.

It’s a noble task – with the closures of Post Offices, libraries, and other basic but often essential amenities around the country (not to mention pubs themselves), pubs are often the last bastion in a rural community. In my home village in Kent, a wee thing between Tonbridge and Maidstone, estate agents have long taken over the only Post Office. The one greengrocer recently shut its doors for the last time, and the bakery’s probably going that way too. If you want to travel to a supermarket to do a weekly shop, you’d better have a car. Or be prepared to fork out for the late-if-ever arriving bus. And of pubs themselves, there were five in the village thirteen years ago. Now there’s two. Ironic for a place once of high import to the British hop trade (even for a village of under 4,000 people, Harvey’s have a beer named after it). 

As to this loss of services, it’s more often than not from within the pub that people rally to do something about it. When the Barclays in the village of Eaton over in Norfolk closed last year, the Cellar House pub filled the gap, assisting with cash withdrawals and cheque deposits. It has become, perhaps, the biggest and best case for a pub not going cashless.

When the Anglers Rest pub, in the Peak District and the last in its village, was on the cusp of closure, it happened that so too was the village’s only Post Office. Local residents put the ambitious plan forward to save the pub and incorporate the Post Office into it, and within a month raised enough to buy the pub and install the Post Office inside. In the first two months, 1,600 people used the pub’s postal services.

Mike Keen, owner and landlord at The Boot – a 16th century pub in Freston, Suffolk – was adamant on not having TVs in the pub when he reopened it after a ten-year closure. Instead, big events and classic films would be screened in the adjacent building, converted into a 12-seat cinema, but with a bit more room when the football’s on. ‘We had about 24 people sitting down in the end, with another 15 standing on the platform behind’ he says, of the World Cup, over the phone. ‘We get a lot of bookings with kids’ parties, and we also do Disney films on weekend mornings along with brunch. Wednesday and Sunday night films usually attract the 25 year-olds and upwards.’

In Burton-le-Coggles – a tiny village in south Lincolnshire whose nearest town is nine miles away – is a pub run by John and Lesley Berry. It was previously underperforming, so John, a trained chef and butcher, decided to try and better The Cholmeley Arms’ fortunes by making use of local ingredients and putting on a menu of ‘hearty country fare’, like chicken liver pâté on toast, curries, and roast pork bellies. Now, people travel from within a 30-mile radius to this tiny village to eat John’s food. Not stopping there, John opened a butchery and farm shop. Several of the farms surrounding the pub now supply it, meaning locals have somewhere convenient to stock up their larders with good food.

At the Halfway House in the Cornish tiny village of Polbathic, run by Jess and Russ, you’ll find a library hundreds of books strong, replenished every month. The village’s 300 residents are able to order any book in the county council’s collection, delivered to the pub for free. Picking up a good paperback and kicking back with a pint is an alluring thought, though the library’s welcomed more for the passive relief of mums and dads than anything else. ‘Lots of kids use it,’ says Jess. ‘It means parents can have a catch-up over a pint or a coffee and poke their heads into the library, make sure everything’s okay. Also, on the other end of the spectrum, we have a lot of older people using it, with special sections with larger print. With lots of libraries shutting all over the place, and the mobile library [no longer running], it’s been a real asset to the pub.’

I could go on, so why don’t I? The Coach & Horses in Derbyshire turned its car park into a community allotment. The Duke of York, in the same county, has its own camping ground, helping accommodate visitors to the area. The Lion & Lamb in Ashton, Cornwall, opened the first shop to appear in the village in five years in their own backyard.

I don’t think it’d brash to say every British person has fantasised about running their own pub. When a pubco isn’t part of the equation, why not? There’s all the scope to do what you want to do, especially with corporate branding out the way. Whether that’s sourcing the beer or redoing the carpets. For many community-led pubs, the dream’s a reality – operators of the Fleece Inn in Hillesley, for instance, claim the pub was cramming in the locals open ‘til close on the first day under its new ownership, and has been that way ever since. Despite all the freedoms the licensees like to flaunt.

So, if your favourite local’s ever facing the bulldozer, you know what to do. Though be aware it’s not always all sunshine and rainbows and chocolate caramel porters – even The Ivy House has had its share of trouble, namely picketing over zero-hours contracts, and a few sackings without prior notice. But lessons are to be learned and, on the whole, researchers have found (without requiring too much effort) that community-owned enterprises – shops, pubs, butchers, and the rest – tend to flourish where the privately run ones fail. Locally owned or not, around the country there are fifty or more reasons why, if any part of a British community is to fail, the last thing it ought to be is the pub.

Share this article