Charlton and its pubs: a new approach?

Rumours are beginning to swirl again about the future of one of Charlton’s pubs: is it time to try a different approach?

These are difficult times to own a pub in London – CAMRA’s research shows that on average 2 pubs a week close in the capital. As well as high rents, landlords are affected by beer ties as well as the increase in beer duty. More locally, in Charlton, it’s not uncommon to see pubs full to bursting on match days but empty the rest of the fortnight. Something about our pubs just isn’t working – with a couple of honourable exceptions, supporting your local in SE7 can sometimes feel like a grim duty rather than a pleasure. At their best, pubs work as a shared front room for residents, allowing a friendly and unthreatening place to catch up. Charlton has lost one pub already in the six years I’ve lived here – the Horse and Groom – which is a sad sight at the moment, still locked up and unused. If another one were at threat, could we do something to save it?

Residents in Nunhead recently took matters into their own hands when their local was sold to a developer for reuse as housing: they formed a cooperative enterprise to buy back the pub and are due to reopen it this summer as London’s first cooperative pub. They used recent powers granted under the Localism Act to list the Ivy House as an ‘Asset of Community Value’, which blocked the reuse of the site for housing. They applied for grants from cooperative associations to help fund purchase of the building, and then issued shares for a cooperative enterprise to run the pub. The shares raise the capital to start the business up, and then after that point the cooperative is run on a one-member-one-vote basis. This isn’t to say that every decision need necessarily be put out to all shareholders: cooperatives can delegate steering committees for operational decisions, or employ tenants to run the pub on their behalf.

There’s an increasing amount of support available for cooperative enterprises. The Ivy House cooperative had help from the Plunkett Foundation, and advice from CAMRA. The Cooperative Enterprise Hub is also offering support to community pubs, and Localism is another organisation offering support and advice on the community right to bid. It’s true that many of the pubs in community ownership so far are in places very different to Charlton, where perhaps the one pub in a village is threatened. It also seems that only 10% of groups that form to run pubs as a co-op go on to do that. But this could be an idea whose time has come [FT link: registration]. In the financial downturn, profit-based businesses may struggle to make enough of an overhead to keep shareholders happy, but businesses owned by the community have a different reason for existing, and may be better placed to survive.

This is an idea that has been buzzing round my head since I had a pint of beer in the Old Crown, Britain’s first cooperative pub, on a Lake District holiday. Doubtless there’d be a lot of work to set this up and keep it running, but perhaps it would give residents an opportunity to see more of what they’d like to see in a local pub, and provide some stability for one of our boozers. If the freehold or lease were available in one of Charlton’s pubs, could residents make a go of it?

2 thoughts on “Charlton and its pubs: a new approach?

  1. “A grim duty…” sums up the local pub situation much more succinctly than the “why are my local pubs [mostly] so rubbish” post that’s been lurking in my blog drafts queue for about 2 years.

    I spend a lot of time (too much time?) wondering if the local semi-deserted, not-particularly-welcoming pub phenomena is a reflection of bad management (“grim duty rather than pleasure” might describe the attitude of some landlords as well as the punters….), or if the local neighbourhood pub is basically doomed by economics (lack of leaseholder investment/cost of rent/price of pint/etc). I hope not.

    It does strike me that many local pubs are more focused on keeping a small number of regulars happy [hello quiet pub whose landlord really should do something about the 4 or 5 drunkards who disrupt everyone else’s friday/saturday night by bellowing Millwall songs once they’ve had a few], than putting the work in to attract (and retain) a wider clientele. Whether this is through lack of effort, skill, interest, or just lack of investment I don’t know. Presumably varies from pub to pub.

    After which, I’m not really sure what my point is…but, yes: let’s please have a think about what could be done differently, and a conversation about what sort of pub Charlton wants – and, most importantly, could sustain. Thanks for starting it.

  2. There’s absolutely no doubt from a professional publican’s point of view that The White Swan has enormous potential in the right hands – ie managed by people who know how to operate a pub professionally – without the encumbrance of high rent and beer supply prices which have made the pub business there fail again, and again. There IS demand for a really busy and vibrant whole-community focused pub locally, as evidenced by the amount of interest raised by the issue of the White Swan’s future as it’s in the doldrums.

    There is a beer and pubs revolution going on nationally that is responding to market demand everywhere great local CRAFT ALE and BEER is big – Charlton is no different, it just hasn’t happened here yet. In fact one could argue pretty straightforwardly that because it hasn’t happened in Charlton there is a better chance of success as LOADS of people locally would frequent a totally reinvigorated White Swan if it were just doing what local people wanted, and a bit more, people who currently probably never go out to socialise in Charlton, on their doorstep, at all. It’s not rocket science to deliver a great pub to an eager audience and make it really successful. The problem is the asset stripping freeholder ‘pub company’,

    What lies between what the pub is now and what the pub could be is the pubco and the agent. Punch and Fleurets don’t want to deal with PEOPLE. They want to deal with property developers and land agents. When it comes to community they are thoroughly reluctant sellers asking a ridiculous sale price. The other problem is that the people wanting to buy the pub are a concerned, inchoate, disparate and disorganised community group that doesn’t yet exist. And of course there is the notional matter of around £1.5 million needed to buy the freehold and develop the site.

    Come 4 November whatever scant protection was conferred on the pub by Asset of Community Value status will largely evaporate as, apart from the ACV application, there’s no evidence that any Community Group has shown interest in buying the pub or have worked to put in an offer during the 6 month moratorium on the pub’s sale.

    If a group can be formed, constituted, form a trading company such as a Community Benefit Society and get organised, write a business plan and raise firm financial pledges of £300K cash from among the community by the end of October there’s a chance this could be a goer. It would be interesting if Greenwich could get behind a bid too, or consider a CPO and if Greenwich Leisure might look at taking a stake too.

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