The community is our greatest asset

Graham Shelton, who led the community buy-out of the Red Lion in Northmoor, updates us on how the model is working

It’s over a year since the first cases of Covid-19 were spotted in the UK, and almost a year since really severe restrictions were imposed on our lives. Not since the Great Frost of 1709 have we had such a severe disruption to our economy, according to one report, and no industry has been more disrupted than hospitality. To put things in perspective, two world wars and the global depression in the late 1920s and 1930s did less economic damage than this pandemic. 

Without doubt many pubs and restaurants will never reopen, and sadly this won’t just be the bad ones. Brewers are hard-hit, of course, and the High Street too will have lots of gaps where dead businesses used to flourish. They are gone and won’t be coming back, although others may come instead.

Graham Shelton

In the middle of all this it can be hard to be objective. Many landlords and landladies will lose their livelihoods and their homes, finding themselves out in the world stripped of their self-confidence and what little funds they may once have possessed. Some, tragically, will have lost their lives.

So why am I not terminally depressed? It’s because the other side of the coin looks remarkably good! The furlough scheme has been a lifeline; grants, rates and rent holidays have kept many businesses alive; and those with the physical, mental and fiscal stamina to hang in and prepare for success can expect a bit of a boom when things do start to re-open in April. Even the ultra-cautious Bank of England is expecting a massive uptick in our economy as restrictions are lifted. One may predict that good as well as only moderately good pubs will have lots of customers, for a while at least.

It’s certainly rare that change doesn’t create opportunity, but it will still need extremely prudent business management to navigate through to the sunny uplands without over-reaching and falling over  ̶  even when there are a lot of customers about. Having run small and large businesses through bad times as well as good, I have never lost sight of the fact that cash is king, and my advice to pub owners and managers is hold it tight in the coming months!

So now we come to the nub. There is a particular and important place in all this for the Community-Owned pubs sector and, as some pubs fall vacant, now is a good time for communities to decide if they wish to dive in. I am delighted to report that the Oxfordshire Community-Owned Pubs Network has weathered the storm really well, and goes from strength to strength. It was particularly gratifying to have the Plunkett Foundation recognize the work we have done, making plans for the first virtual meeting of community-owned pubs on a regional scale partly inspired by the Oxfordshire experience. We are very much looking forward to participating with Oxfordshire colleagues not only from the Red Lion Northmoor, but also the Abingdon Arms, Beckley, the Crown, South Moreton, and the White House in Bladon.

So what should you do if your pub doesn’t re-open? Is it time for you to step forward to buy your very own pub? It takes a big commitment from a community to buy its pub, often closed because what was there before had not been viable. All the legal, financial, planning and people issues are definitely not for the faint-hearted. It’s also a bit like having a family: an expensive and long-term commitment!

On the other hand, community pub ownership can certainly be successful and fun, and it is notable that few have failed anywhere in the country over the last 8-10 years since the very first one was born. 

Lisa Neale at the Red Lion’s new outdoor servery

As far as the Oxfordshire experience is concerned, we are all volunteers who have done it ourselves with our own money and learned what works and what doesn’t. We are always happy to advise people thinking of going down this route – see my contact details below. It won’t be right for everyone: out of all the pubs in Oxfordshire only nine are owned by their communities, but the number of rising. It’s easy to see why.

James Mallick, Chair of the Bladon Community Benefit Society, says: “After months of campaigning we got the keys to our village pub in July, right in the middle of the pandemic! After many hours of socially distanced volunteering and appointing Johnny Roberts as our tenant, we opened the White House in October, just before we all went back into another lockdown. It is a great testament to how effective the community pub model is; it’s doubtful the pub would still be open if it was in private ownership.”

The landlord of Oxfordshire’s first community-owned pub, Matt Bowden-Ford of the Seven Stars, Marsh Baldon, says: “After the first lockdown we opened again for full service with a brand new menu as from Wednesday December 2. Feedback for the new menu has been amazing and the number of people coming out has started to build. The village is very happy with the re-opening and has backed us fully with support.”

One-way at the Red Lion

It’s been very tough that Lockdown 3 pinched off that restart, but with things easing up again that community spirit will pull all the community pubs through, I am quite sure. And that is the great strength of the community partnership forged through a shared endeavour: the community supports the pub, and the pub supports the community. If you love the fellowship of community then starting a community pub is a great endeavour.

Popping down to your “own” pub for a beer with your friends is surely one of life’s very greatest pleasures. Certainly buying things from the pub on a regular basis is a cornerstone of community pub ownership, but there is so much more that pub owners can do. During the Covid-19 pandemic many pubs have benefitted from reductions in rent and complete rent holidays, and this has certainly been game-changing for many. Pubcos woke up rather late to this so many of those landlords are not in such a good place.

At the Red Lion in Northmoor we have worked very closely with Ian and Lisa Neale, our lovely long-time landlords and tenants, and volunteer work in decorating, cleaning and even constructing an outdoor servery has been a key part of our joint endeavours. During lockdown we have worked hard on the core fabric too, putting in modern water and 3-phase electricity supplies, setting up the wiring for electric car charging points, revamping and wiring the pizza oven, providing a new sign and a covered outside space, and installing three grant-aided shepherd’s huts for guest accommodation. We have also spent some time helping with Google ad support for the shepherd’s hut rental.

If your pub is looking like it will never reopen, do take heart from what we are doing in Northmoor and in all the other communities who have discovered the joy of owning their own pub. We can do remarkable things when we do them together. Community is our greatest asset and even in hard times it is our greatest hope for the future.

Graham Shelton, Northmoor, Oxfordshire

Villagers celebrate community buy-out of the White House, Bladon

The editor adds:

Looking at initiatives by other Community-Owned pubs in the area, the Bladon Community Benefit Society has opened the White House Community Kitchen in order to provide free hot food to local people in Bladon and the surrounding villages. Landlord Johnny Roberts, who took over on re-opening having moved from Wetherspoon’s Four Candles in Oxford, said: “In conjunction with the #endchildfoodpoverty campaign we have seen that there is a real need to provide a hot nutritious meal to the vulnerable in our local area. This pandemic has hit those who are most vulnerable incredibly hard, so we aim to provide a free hot meal to anyone who needs it, young or old. No-one should go to bed hungry or worry where their next meal is coming from.

“We have applied for grant funding but this is not guaranteed, so we have set up this crowdfunding page to support our efforts which has raised over £2,500 so far. Every £5 you give provides someone with a free hot meal delivered to their door, so we really are incredibly grateful for any money you can spare. The fantastic team at the White House pub, along with volunteers, will be able to cook and deliver a hot meal to those who are vulnerable or unable to get out to buy food. Thank you for your support.”

Ready to deliver local beers from the Abingdon Arms in Beckley

The Abingdon Arms in Beckley has also launched a delivery service for food and for real ale from Oxfordshire breweries. Throughout the pandemic, from the first day of the lockdown last March, Suzy Minichova, Alex Dumitrache and Vicky Macpherson and their committed team have done everything they can to support and provide takeaway ales and meals, and were one of few pubs to offer takeaway cask ales in the first and second lockdowns. 

Alex’s midweek wood-fired pizzas are proving a big hit, and he maintains a more extensive a la carte menu at weekends. Of course, beers must now be delivered rather than collected, so judicious ordering of ale and food together ensures delivery to the front door. Suzy has continued to support local small breweries, and recently the ales (bitters, dark mild and porter) have been sourced from Shotover, Little Ox (both regulars) and White Horse breweries. She’s keen to offer ales from other breweries if demand permits. Of course ale sales are not at normal pre-lockdown levels, so Suzy is taking a risk opening a couple of 72-pint casks each week. We all need to get behind this very welcome initiative.