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July 12, 2017

Do we love our pubs?

Pubs are hardly a thing of the past but the facts don’t lie. Pubs are in slow but steady decline. For the past decade, more than two pubs a week in Scotland have called time for the very last time. Whether it’s the smoking ban, the lower permitted limit for driving or just a shift in leisure habits, the stark facts are that many communities, particularly small rural ones, run the risk of losing what can be a vital community asset. In England, where even more have fallen by the wayside, community buyouts are becoming increasingly common. For some reason, not in Scotland.


Rupert Jones, The Guardian

When the only pub in the Cumbrian village of Crosby Ravensworth closed its doors in 2009, residents decided they were not prepared to simply sit back and accept the loss of a vital community hub. They took matters into their own hands, setting up a financial co-operative to bring their local back to life – which meant putting in their own money.

For a minimum investment of £250, villagers and others sympathetic to the cause could become a “co-owner” of the Butchers Arms. A May 2011 article in the Guardian highlighting the venture contributed to a surge in the number of people signing up, and it was not long before the target was reached, allowing the co-operative to buy the pub, refurbish it and open its doors once again to drinkers and diners (the then-prime minister, David Cameron, even popped along to officially open the bar).

Six years on, the Butchers Arms is thriving and very much “back on the map”, said husband-and-wife landlords Jon and Katie Metcalfe. In 2011, co-operative pubs owned by members were a rarity – there were only about half a dozen others – but it seems the idea of local people taking ownership of a vital amenity has caught on. A report issued this week revealed that the number of co-operative pubs open for business has now reached 50 and there are 90 groups actively exploring setting one up.

The report from Plunkett Foundation, a charity that supports community-owned businesses, said these locally owned and run enterprises “are prospering where private enterprise has failed”.

It’s a relatively rare shaft of good news for an industry that has been buffeted by a range of factors, from people increasingly opting to either stock up on cheap supermarket booze or pricier craft beers they can drink at home, to high pub rents and wholesale beer prices. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), 21 British pubs every week are calling last orders for good, though if the community-owned pub revolution gathers pace, that pace could slow.

The sector may still be relatively small, but it is growing fast. In 1988 there was only one co-operative pub registered, and in 2004 there were just three. But the number had climbed to 46 by the end of 2016, hit 50 last month, and is likely to reach 57 by the end of 2017, said the report. Perhaps remarkably, bearing in mind that in many cases these were previously failing or defunct businesses, not a single co-operative pub has closed, “maintaining an impressive 100% survival rate”, said Plunkett Foundation.

The north-west of England and Wales are home to the largest numbers of co-operative pubs, and while many are located in rural areas, there are a number in towns and cities. The Ivy House in Nunhead, south-east London, is one of two co-operatively owned pubs in the capital – the other is the Antwerp Arms in Tottenham – and was saved by a dedicated group of volunteers who raised £1m to buy the freehold and refurbish the property after it was closed down by Enterprise Inns in 2012 and sold to a property developer.

Now it is a key part of the community and plays host to a dizzying array of events – from lindy hop and children’s ukulele classes to yoga and knitting sessions – as well as live music, comedy nights, and all the things you would expect: pub quizzes, birthday parties/weddings/funeral wakes etc. “We’re doing well, we have a loyal community around us,” said a spokeswoman for the Ivy House, which has 371 member owners (also known as shareholders).

The 50th co-operative pub to open is the Craufurd Arms in Maidenhead, Berkshire, within Theresa May’s constituency. It was described by the Co-operative & Community Finance organisation as “a rare example of an ungentrified local in the affluent Royal Borough of Windsor” that was well known locally for its good beer, darts teams and showing sport on TV. A so-called community benefit society made up of 226 members recently bought the pub, and it is open for business, with a “grand opening weekend” planned for 21-23 July. It is not clear yet whether the prime minister will be cutting the ceremonial ribbon.

Locals sprang into action when the owner, Wellington Pub Company, announced it wished to dispose of the property. A fundraising share issue opened in February 2017 and raised £310,000 from people investing sums between £250 and £25,000.

With a grant from the More Than a Pub programme and a loan from Co-operative & Community Finance, this was enough to proceed with the purchase, and the transfer of ownership was accomplished without any interruption to the business of serving customers.

Back at the Butchers Arms in Cumbria, Jon Metcalfe said the pub was “going from strength to strength – we have people travelling from quite far and wide to visit us”. However, he admitted he was initially a little apprehensive about working for a business that in effect has 330 member owners. Many of the customers and pub employees “own part of the brickwork”, and he had wondered whether he might find himself having to deal with regulars saying: “I own this building, I don’t want to pay that much for a pint.” But his worries proved unfounded: “No one ever pulls rank – we are very much left to run the business.”

Kitty Smith, secretary of the co-operative that bought the Butchers Arms, said the 2011 Guardian piece about the fundraising had made a big difference: “I can remember receiving £21,000 the following Tuesday after the article appeared.” While many of the members live locally, some come from as far afield as Alaska and Australia. So does she visit the pub much herself? “I’m going there tonight – I’m never away,” said Smith. “The food is amazing – Thai prawn curry tonight.”


Some of the schemes to finance the purchase of co-operative pubs offer those participating the bonus of a financial return. In the case of the Butchers Arms, the co-operative is paying 3% interest a year – more than the vast majority of savings accounts offer.