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?