When the Fox & Hounds public house at Denmead was threatened with closure, the community pulled together to make a stand. A group of local residents formed a co-operative and set about buying the pub.
A little background, and some history.
The Fox & Hounds was built in around 1870 as an alehouse to support the local agricultural workers, and it’s been trading ever since. It was privately owned and tenanted for thirteen years, up until April 2012. In recent years, trade has declined, and the owners decided to cut their losses and offer the land up for building residential housing.
In March of 2012, much to the dismay of local residents, the owners displayed the plans for the proposed planning application on the walls inside the pub. The local community felt strongly that the pub, because it had been successful and profitable in the past, could be made to work as a business again. An attempt was made to dissuade the owners from going ahead with their plan, but they were firm in their commitment to it. At this point, the community pulled together to form a co-operative to fight the closure.
By a strange quirk of fate, in June 2012, the Conservative Government had passed the ‘Assets of Community Value Regulations’, one of the new set of rights for communities, introduced as part of the Localism Act of 2011. The intention of the Act was to give power to local communities to save buildings or assets of value and interest to their communities. As soon it became law, the co-operative was able to make an application, through Winchester City Council, to save the Fox & Hounds public house. The application was turned down the first time, but the second application, via the Parish Council, was accepted, and the pub was listed as ‘An Asset of Value to the Community’.
The acceptance meant that a six month moratorium was then put on any building work, or associated works, to do with the site. This gave the co-operative time to get a valuation, and to go out to the community to raise a bid for the purchase of the pub as a going concern. An offer was made and eventually accepted. The owners realised that, in light of over 150 local objections raised against the initial planning application, they were unlikely to get the approval they required to build the housing.
A local villager underwrote the project on the basis that, as long as the refurbishment costs were raised, estimated at the time as being £200k, he would act as guarantor. The £200k target was achieved in around eight weeks! Since then, the co-operative has been actively fund raising and, at the time of writing, they have reached a little over £300k. After reworking and re-estimating the initial design, the refurbishment costs have been reduced, and the project cost stands at around £425k in total.
Together with local investors, donations, a local grant, and a small amount of commercial lending, the co-operative is on track to have the pub refurbished, occupied and up and running, by the end of October 2014.
I met three members of the Fox & Hounds Co-operative (Rob Stark, Jon Pocock, Nick Jardine) to chat about their involvement and to hear some of the background story.
Why did you form the co-operative?
Rob: Under the Localism Act, we were required have an officially recognised body to enable us to bid for the purchase of the property, so we formed a community co-operative to meet those needs.
Nick: Once this was formed, we were then legally able to put forward a ‘community share offer’ which was opened just after Christmas, in January (2014), and is still open now. We’re a non-profit making organisation, as one of the conditions is that we are not allowed to make a profit from the exercise ourselves.
Does the co-operative have a name?
Rob: Yes, but it’s rather a mouthful [laughs]. “The Fox & Hounds (Denmead) Community Co-operative Ltd”
Is this Co-operative unusual?
Nick: Formed under the Co-operative Act, it’s the same as any other. We took a lot of advice from the Empowerus Co-operative Group, which promotes and supports co-operatives and social enterprises in rural communities worldwide. There are all sorts of different business models and formats. The Plunkett Foundation was a good source of information and advice too.
Rob: Nick makes a good point; there is no set format. There have been a few groups around the country that have done it and, how successful they are, only time will tell. We believe that our model is sustainable, with the fundraising and everything else, the business model works.
The Plunkett foundation promotes and supports co-operatives and social enterprises in rural communities worldwide.
How long have you lived in this area?
Rob: 27 years for me
Nick: Around 37 years
Jon: 27 years
Rob: As long time locals, who have been frequent visitors to the pub in its heyday, a group of us were affectionately known as the 601 club. When the pub used to do good food, we could often be found here, at one minute past six of an evening, a couple of times a week. [laughs]
You’ve been heavily involved in the selection of the new tenant?
Rob: We’ve selected, after interviewing twelve applicants, who we feel will be a suitable tenant family. Their son Damion used to be the head chef at The Hurdles, a local pub in Droxford, recognised for serving good quality food, so he brings with him a very good reputation. He and his partner Angie will be tenants and run the place, and his parents, who have a business in Petersfield and have run other pubs, will be also be tenants. Based on their history and reputation, we have high hopes that they will be excellent landlords and be able to serve very good food.
What sort of input are you having, if any, in what the new tenants will be able to do?
Rob: We started off with guidelines, which essentially said that we want the landlord to provide good quality a la carte food, a good wine list and first class ales; a cut above the rest. That formed the basis of our selection process. We’ll be having regular meetings to address any community concerns, if there are any, and an AGM, which is a requirement of being a Co-operative. But apart from that, we can’t tell them how to run the pub, and we couldn’t do it as a community; it just wouldn’t last.
Nick: Our criteria, when we did the interviews, were presented to the applicants, and we wanted to hear how they would fulfil them. We had a certain level of expectation regarding standards etc; and, as long as they were on-board with that, we would be happy.
Rob: We did have a catering consultant with us, during the selection process, to help out. That was Neil Rusbridger, who teaches at Highbury College, and used to own and run the White Horse at Chilgrove
Who’s overseeing the day-to-day building work?
Rob: Martin Wilkes is our project manager. A friend of a friend who was introduced to us at the time.
Nick: None of us have any specialist expertise in running pubs or building work, but, between us, we have been able to pull in the right people for the roles to get the job done, as and when we have needed them. Jon, for example, has some financial experience, but is not an accountant. So we’ve brought one in when necessary. Most of the skills have come from investors.
So all of these people are offering their time freely to see the project to its conclusion?
Rob: We have building suppliers, electricians; all sorts of trades. There’s a local building company, Skeens & Ash, who have taken on the main building work for the project. They’re doing the job in a piecemeal way to keep the costs down.
Sounds like you’re going to have a pub full of all the people who have helped out when it opens?
Nick: We’ll have a customer base of well over 200 investors …
Rob: …and probably another 100 who are just interested in what’s been achieved, and our story.
Have there been any objections from anybody in the community?
Nick: When the original housing application was submitted by the owners, I think there were 186 objectors and only three supporters. One of the supporters is now an investor, so he wasn’t that serious [laughs]. The other two, to the best of my knowledge, have never used the pub at all.
Are you getting any support beyond the immediate area?
Rob: We’re either the only one, or one of two co-operatives, that had a hostile seller under the Localism Act. That meant that we had the community right to bid, but we had a seller who didn’t want to sell. When we actually won, we were mentioned in PM Questions in the Houses of Parliament, by our local MP, George Hollingbery. He’s pledged to hold his rural surgeries in the pub, and he’ll be there for the opening as well.
Jon: One of our claims to fame is that we now have an entry in Hansard, among other things [laughs].
You said that the grand opening was going to be for the village fireworks night?
Rob: That won’t be the opening day. We’re hoping to have it before the end of October. It will open in stages, giving us time to commission the equipment etc. We have some ideas on how we’re going to do it, but it’s not fully fleshed out just yet. Then, all being well, there will be a big bonfire party in the field opposite. That’s most likely to be on November the 8th.
I’m told that this is a regular gathering for the locals?
Rob: It was, up until about three years ago, when the pub started to lose its trade.
Nick: It had become a very popular event.
Rob: The pub would have higher takings than on New Year’s Eve! It all started in my back garden twenty-five years ago. That was for two years, then we got permission to hold it in the field opposite the pub.
Nick: You couldn’t get any more people in your garden could you [laughs]?
Rob: No, I laid the lawn, that’s what happened [laughs].
The co-operative must take up a lot of your time?
Rob: It’s been a lot of personal commitment, and hidden costs, for all those who have been involved. It affects families, relationships and friendships. It’s not something that you can easily let go of either. We all feel a sense of responsibility, as we should, to all the 200 odd people, shareholders, donators, contributors and volunteers. Everyone that has put a great deal of trust in our vision.
And they all know where we live [all laugh]
Jon: The thing is, we’ve taken on this commitment, and we will see it to a conclusion. From our point of view, that conclusion is that the pub will be bought, paid for, and open at the allotted time. At that point, we’ll probably think about handing over the reins to others, as it will be an on-going thing from then.
be standing on the other side of the bar.“
Rob: It’s been a very long and, at times, frustrating two years. To be honest, we’ve nearly given up on a couple of occasions, but something has always happened to give us faith in the project again, and we’ve somehow struggled through. It’s not over yet, but it’s finally all within reach now.
so hard in our lives for nothing!“
Watch this space for the continuing story of the Fox & Hounds and the Denmead community co-operative.
Web Links and References of interest
Fox & Hounds
Building Contractors Skeens & Ash
Empowerus – Community Empowerment
TJ Waste – Skip Hire
Social Investment Business
Sprechen – Marketing consultants
Sunlight Plastics – Windows & Doors
Town and Country Window Systems