The colourful rise of community owned pubs

Mar 5, 2024 | News

People from all over the UK have united to save their local pubs. It’s more than just a place to drink; it’s about satisfying the thirst for community.

A pub is located on the Knoydart Peninsula in the west Highlands. The Old Forge, with its views of Loch Nevis, the surrounding hills and lush landscapes and the village of Inverie’s close-knit community of 120 residents, is the heart of this small village. This pub is so remote that it can only be reached by ferry or two-day hike if you don’t live in the village.

This isn’t all that makes this local watering place unique. The Old Forge is a community-owned bar since March 2022. A community pub is exactly what it sounds, owned and operated by locals who have equal say in the way the business is run.

Locals discussed purchasing The Old Forge under community ownership after learning that it was going to be sold in January 2021. After months of hard work they opened their pub in April 2022. Stephanie Harris, the pub’s Business Development Manager, says that because they live in a small town with few places to go to, the pub is a place where people can come together. What about the views? The landscape is all around you. The landscape is all around. .”

The Old Forge may be unique in certain ways, but it is also part of an increasing trend when it comes community-owned pubs. According to the Plunkett Foundation (a charity that helps set up community-owned business), there were 174 community owned pubs in the UK as of January 2024. According to research by trade body Co-Operatives UK, the number of community-owned bars in the UK increased by 62.6% in the last five year. The pubs are under increasing threat as they struggle to cope with rising energy costs and inflation. In 2023,

The Old Forge, in the Highlands of Scotland, has had a great deal of success with its music nights. Image: The Old Forge CBS

What makes these pubs different from the average boozers? There’s also the funding and logistical side. Most often, communities raise funds to buy a pub using a combination of crowdfunding, community shares and loans, as well as government grants. Most community pubs are run as Community Benefit Societies. This is a non-profit business model.

The management committee is usually in charge of the organisation, even if it’s owned by many people. Claire Spendley, The Plunkett Foundation’s head of community business, says that “community-owned pubs” are businesses owned by the local community, with members having equal and democratic control. “Community shares are a great way to build a customer base, and create a sense pride in the business. They’re a voluntary, open and affordable form of membership that allows locals to invest.” They are based on the principle of one member, one vote, which ensures local residents have a voice in how the business runs.

The real difference for many of these places is not just a decent pint, but how they serve the local community. James Gadsby Peet is the co-founder and director of The Star of Greenwich, a pub in south London. He has lived in the area for over 15 years, and runs the pub with fellow locals Kirsty Donohoe and Lisa Donohoe.

They have made a real friendship that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and their lives are better for it

James Gadsy Peet of The Star of Greenwich says: ‘I view it as a hub for the community that is enabled by the income of a pub as opposed to being just a pub. Image: Josh Bright

Gadsby says that the aim is to make the neighbourhood more pleasant by encouraging people to spend more time together. “I see it more as a community centre that is enabled by the income of a pub than just being a bar.”

The pub may look like a classic East End boozer. Wood-panelled l-shaped bar? Check. Check. Check. Dartboard? Check. The pub also rents out a room for free, which is used for regular play sessions for children hosted by a local provider. It’s also used for English lessons for refugees, and charity meetings. The pub does not serve food but it hosts pop-ups in partnership with Plateful Cafe a community organisation which trains and employs refugees chefs.

The committee at The Old Forge regularly asks locals about their opinion of the pub. This includes the menu and the events programme. Live music nights with local musicians are a big hit. Spendley says the ability to adapt to community feedback is what makes these pubs so successful. “Member control ensures that the business is constantly adapting and serving its members and wider communities – this is what gives community owned pubs such longevity .”

The Star of Greenwich is a place where ‘railway workers’, ‘city number-crunchers’ and retired pensioners spend time together. Image: Josh Bright

Profit is not the main focus of these businesses, even though their funding structures can vary. We’re set-up as a community benefits society, so we can’t make a profit. Gadsby says that any money we make is used to run the community asset. He does not receive a salary but the pub pays its bar staff. Harris says that the pub has a “pretty thorough business plan” that aims to generate a profit that can be reinvested into the business or invested in other projects that benefit the community.

These spaces are all about building connections. Gadsby says that the idea is to bring together people who would not normally meet. You’ll find a variety of people chatting at the Star of Greenwich – railway workers and City number crunchers, retired pensioners, and more. Gadsby Peet cites two brothers and a couple who have been regulars at the pub since the 1950s. “They have formed genuine friendships.” They go to dinner outside the pub. This relationship would not have happened otherwise, and their lives are better for it,” says he.

It’s clear that running these places involves a lot of work and people often give up their time without charge. What motivates them to continue? “As our world becomes more polarised and people spend less together, I believe these community spaces that allow people to meet each other become more important. Gadsby says that there are also fewer of these spaces. “That’s what it’s all about.” It’s not about drinking or eating, but rather people .”

Main Image: Mark Harris

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