Res Publica


Res Publica

Bill Hartley, on community assets

A recent newspaper report claimed that more than 11,000 pubs, restaurants and hotels have closed in Britain over the past two years. Clearly lockdown will have played a part, though doubtless some were teetering on the edge before the pandemic hit. Rural pubs have been particularly affected and often it’s the location. Hidden away up a country lane or in an isolated village may have been fine back when the  labour force trudged in from nearby fields but the demographics of villages has changed and if the locals won’t use the place then passing trade may not be enough.

A fight back began some years ago with the growth of community pubs. Of course pubs were always about community but the idea is that the place is seen as a broader resource. Even government began to recognise this with the passing of the Localism Act (2012). The Act gives people the right to step in and save what is recognised as a community asset. When it comes to pubs there is plenty of advice available and many success stories. Both CAMRA and the Plunkett Foundation offer information, to assist those who may be considering this approach.

In North Yorkshire close to Richmond is a small village whose pub closed in 2008. Originally it was owned by the operator but subsequently fell into the hands of a Pubco. For any establishment in need of some support such an acquisition can be the equivalent of a wasting disease. Pubco’s have been described in the financial press as property companies who sell beer. Should the pub be doing well then the company is happy to celebrate the achievement. Any place in need of help may get a make do and mend response at most. In fairness the people they get to run such places aren’t always the best either. At this particular pub the tenant who presided over its demise had an obsession about parking. Fail to meet his (unwritten) rules and the offenders’ registration number would be announced in the bar. The miscreant would then have to slink out under the gaze of other customers, probably never to return.

Since then the pub has remained empty. The company sold the property to a developer who intended to convert the place into a private house. A few enterprising villagers formed a committee to resist this and the council went further, ensuring that the pub couldn’t be sold as a private house. The local MP Rishi Sunak threw in his support. Remarkably, this small committee (originally only three people) has succeeded in raising £250,000, though to fully realise their plans £325,000 is needed.

The idea is to renovate the pub so that it will have multiple uses: café, meeting place etc. and money will be needed to fit out the building, which is now little more than an empty shell. It may be some time yet, then, before the pub reopens. The question is will this multiple usage approach allow the pub to succeed as a community resource? It may depend on what is meant by community.

There is a website which describes the village as ‘picturesque’ and fleetingly it is. The road through is flanked by houses built in the local stone. This was the original village with its two farms providing employment. Things have changed since the time when the village was largely self contained. It has expanded and the approaches are now filled with a depressing wilderness of bungalows and other more recent buildings, few of which enhance the village’s aspect. The increase in population hasn’t saved other local services: the school, shop and post office are long gone. People who move into villages often have no interest in supporting local businesses; they bring with them their suburban shopping habits and this means the supermarket. Older residents of North Yorkshire villages can reel off the various shops and other services which have disappeared over the last two or three decades. If a shop still survives then it helps if the village straddles a busy road, since selling sandwiches and over priced cups of coffee is often more lucrative than relying on those residents who still shop locally.

A clue to the future prospects of the pub and the attitude of some locals is provided by the fate of the old post office. The same company which bought the pub also acquired this building and applied for it to be demolished, intending to build a house on the plot. Whilst the demise and sale of the pub attracted little attention at the time, things were different with the post office. The plot comes without space for car parking. This prompted a reaction by those with a proprietorial interest in ‘their’ piece of public road. An enclave of retirees and others was moved to protest with a vehemence that didn’t accompany the closure of the pub. Nine objectors came forward and a petition attracted 31 names. Essentially the unspoken message was: with no parking exclusive to the property, the occupants of any house built there would encroach on the established parking spaces of the neighbours. Someone was rather more creative, pointing out to the council that there would be a visibility problem for cars turning onto the busy main road. This succeeded and permission was refused.

The pub, which is close by, has only a small amount of parking space (perhaps that last landlord had a point) and those with long memories recall that the overspill was accommodated along the main road. There is a palpable sense in the newsletter produced by the committee that they anticipate parking related hostility. This is unsurprising following the reaction to the old post office proposal. A local landowner is willing to convert some nearby grazing land into a car park, which of course will be another planning hurdle to overcome. It’s unlikely that all villagers will welcome a car park in close proximity, even though this will be an important facility to ensure the success of the pub. Hostility may be muted at present, because even with the purchase price raised there is still a long way to go.

Community asset or not, passing trade is likely to be the key to the future success of this pub. The changed demographics helped bring about its demise and customers for the core business will need to be attracted from further away. This means travel by car and competition for parking spaces. Some incomers tend to be more interested in location than community and seem to prefer living insular lives. Not to be inconvenienced is a priority among such people and when it comes to car parking it remains to be seen whether they will tolerate the intrusion of outsiders. The reopening of the pub may be community asset that some can do without.

Editorial endnote; the problem identified by Bill Hartley is not confined to the countryside. The Ealing Park Tavern, shown above, has been boarded up for some time

William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service 

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