The pub saved by the community

When The Ivy House in south-east London was threatened with closure in 2012, regulars clubbed together to buy the building

Above the bar in The Ivy House pub in Nunhead, south-east London, there is a series of chalkboard signs set into the dark wood panelling. Some provide the usual information about the local beers on tap, but others display much more unusual information, namely the number of shareholders in the pub and their investment capital.

Next to the bar, posters and leaflets advertising midweek yoga, toddler groups and knitting circles jostle for attention with the schedule of bands due to perform on a stage once graced by Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer. This is London’s first community-owned pub.

But it nearly wasn’t like this. In 2012, the tenant landlord of the pub was given a week’s notice to quit when the company that owned the property decided to sell to a developer, which planned to turn the pub into flats.

But when regulars headed to The Ivy House for a farewell drink, they realised they were not alone and decided to band together in an attempt to save it.

"It’s quite unusual for a London pub in that there’s a genuinely diverse mix of regulars," says Matt Soper, a member of the eight-strong management committee that now oversees the running of the pub. "In our little corner of Peckham Rye, there’s not much else that’s equivalent.

"The people who were around in the early days felt it was important to save the building and keep it as a space for people to use."

Community value

The Localism Act had been passed the previous year, allowing members of local communities to register a property as an asset of community value. This prevented The Ivy House from being sold for six months while community groups tried to raise the money to bid for it.

The pub was among the first properties to be listed under the legislation. On 13 March 2013 the group succeeded in purchasing the freehold using a £550,000 loan from the Architectural Heritage Fund and a £450,000 grant from Social Investment Business, the social investment wholesaler.

The funding of the pub’s refurbishment and ongoing maintenance was a very different challenge. The committee appealed to members of the local community, asking them to invest in the future of The Ivy House by buying shares, starting at a minimum of two shares for £20 up to a maximum of £20,000.

It was something of an uphill struggle: the pub itself was closed at this time, so it couldn’t be used to attract investors. With other pubs nearby, it was vital for the committee to explain to the community why this pub was worth saving. So the committee took to social media to get the message out, as well as using more old-fashioned methods such as leafleting and talking to existing community groups.

Soper admits he was sceptical. "When I first heard about the ambition to raise £100,000 from the local community, I thought we were never going to do that," he says. "Why would anyone put that much money in?"

But they succeeded. In fact, they smashed their target. In pride of place over the bar, one chalkboard sign proudly states: "We have a total of 371 community shareholders and joint investment capital of £147,000."

Soper says: "When the place was being closed down originally, I don’t think many people realised how many others cared."

So when we came into the place in significant numbers, we figured out there was a much wider group of people who used the place than we first realised.

"Today the pub is run as a community benefit society, with the committee overseeing the management of the business, while shareholders have the opportunity to make their voices heard at the AGM – and, of course, across the bar. The pub is freehold, allowing it to negotiate its own relationships with suppliers and focus on local breweries, capitalising on the current interest in craft beers.

Impact

The Ivy House is now one of about 70 community-run pubs across the country, and the trend is beginning to have an impact on the UK’s beleaguered pub trade.

In 2016, the Campaign For Real Ale announced that the rate of pub closures in Britain had slowed from 27 a week in January to 21 six months later, and it credited this in part to community campaigns to save and take over local pubs.

By December 2016, 2,000 pubs had been registered as assets of community value, giving locals the chance to bid for them should they ever come under threat. That amounts to about half the total number of registered assets, which include buildings such as libraries, community centres and post offices.

The government has got in on the act too. Last year, it launched a £3.62m, two-year programme to offer loans, grants and business development support to 80 community-owned pubs, provided through the Plunkett Foundation.

As for The Ivy House, it’s gone "from strength to strength", says Soper. It is even contemplating reopening the share issue because of the number of new people who want to get involved. The pub has shared its experiences with other community groups and is happy to pass on advice to them, but, Soper says, each pub and each community is likely to be different.

"I think the unfortunate thing about all of this is there’s no one approach that’s going to work for every single pub," he says. "But as with anything, I guess, you have to do plenty of research first. Making something an asset of community value isn’t a guarantee of saving it. It involves so many other aspects, such as local support and the size of the community."

Range of expertise

But one thing that did put the group in a powerful position to get the project off the ground, Soper says, was having the right range of expertise. Within its founding committee, The Ivy House was lucky enough to have a property lawyer, a town planner and an architect with experience of restoring old properties.

It hasn’t been without its challenges. One of the largest, Soper says, has been the building itself, which has sprung leaks and been flooded. "It’s a unique building and that’s what people love about it, so it comes with the territory," Soper says.The pub’s financial future is not secure yet, either. Soper says a quiet month could put it in the red and leave the committee answerable to shareholders. But for now, he says, the pub is turning a profit, driven largely by support from locals.

"In a community pub, you’re not just listening to your customers; they are an integral part of your set-up and you’re hearing their feedback first hand," he says.

"It means you are genuinely part of the community. That is something you hear quite a lot these days, but isn’t necessarily genuine. I think we can definitely say it is so in our case."

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