Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What's Happening Down t'Community Pub Mill

The Ivy House: the challenges of a community share issue in London

The above article in Guardian Social Enterprise. My response:

The fact is that all communities concerned about 'their' local pub in the circumstances of it coming under threat of permanent closure are faced with similar challenges, whether they are rural, urban, inner city or estate based, the people affected, generally pub customers, have to identify the threat, muster wide support, coordinate community action, learn the ropes of setting up a vehicle for the purchase and investment of the building while having to outmanoeuvre wily and experienced property agents and developers whose last wish is to see a rabble of irritating locals get in the way of their closed shop meddling in 'strategic asset management'.

What 'Team Ivy House' achieved in snatching a substantial building from the clutches of recalcitrant, asset stripping pubco freeholders and the self interested small time property developers they are used to dealing with off market, whose interests in pubs are purely to profit from their churn into alternative use with as little friction as possible, amounts to an act of inspired genius. That said, the astonishing feat Ivy House group achieved is due to a remarkable set of circumstances – particularly the timing of the group coming into existence combined with a range of exceptional skills among the people who first came together as customers and locals who wanted to save 'their' pub. In many ways the Ivy House got a much easier win than most people setting out to do the same with their local pub anywhere else could ever hope to achieve but that is not to distract from what is by any measure an extraordinary coup.

Upon finding out that the pub was about to close forever Ivy House customers were confronted with what undoubtedly looked to be an insurmountable challenge: Raise £1million (minimum!) cash at short notice to have even a vague hope of standing up to the forces of private equity interests determined to maximise return on bricks and mortar without regard for what was most appropriate for either a historic building or the community it served for generations. However serendipity played a large part - the locals had a good enough relationship with the pub's end game manager to be told what was about to happen in advance of closure. This gave a few locals a small amount of time to mobilise and take stock of the situation. As luck would have it the blend of skills and experience in the group of committed people that quickly emerged was unusually suited to take on such an apparently insurmountable challenge...

Between them the group had an unusual range of excellent complementary skills, from good legal and organisational expertise to building preservation, town planning and conservation backgrounds with more than a bit of research skills, event organisation and grant applications experience thrown in. Just as importantly, between the group there was an amount of spare time away from full time jobs that could be shared out to handle various essential tasks to great effect, plus a strong local and London wide network of sympathetic people and organisations well informed about the current zeitgeist around the Localism Act and pubs as Community Assets.

Remarkably the community group were able to take stock of a highly complicated situation and adopt a strategic approach which erected barriers to slow the pace of the building being taken into alternative use; first by getting it Listed Architecturally and secondly as an Asset of Community Value under the Localism Act. These steps hampered the developer's progress toward planning applications and allowed breathing space for the group to look into a raft of possibilities for the pub which, until that particular moment, were not available to pubs or communities anywhere - The Localism Act was just coming into effect and a range of funding supportive of its aims came on stream at the same time.

Understanding how complicated it would be to raise such the huge amount of money needed to buy the pub, with support from Plunkett Foundation and Locality among others, the group made successful loan and grant applications to Architectural Heritage Fund and Social Investment Business. This raised £1million in total and immediately meant they were in a position to buy the freehold from a substantial footing, leaving some working capital and most importantly, the time and space to raise further capital through a community share issue – an offer which was in effect completely underwritten by the loan and grant capital which created a virtuous circle of patient capital coming in from very different sources, all with the determination to see a significant local asset saved and invested in, and redeveloped fit for purpose for contemporary community expectations.

The enormous challenge Team Ivy House faced at the outset - for a group with community well being in mind to stand up equal to developers with self preservation as their motivation – they surmounted admirably. Their achievement should be shouted from the rooftops everywhere. What remains is for the group to steer their ambitious and audacious project to a future where the pub reopens and trades financially successfully and sustainably as a thriving vibrant community hub, the multi faceted local resource outlined in their business plan, which taps into its environs and the wider London pub scene and the nationwide zeitgeist for seeing communities take control of their areas, and be an inspiration to the many dozens of communities all over the country being faced with reinventing the wheel of making their local pubs work for their locals instead of remote asset managers in Burton on Trent as, sadly, is the case with most of our nation's pubs.

What's still lacking in the whole Community Pub situation – and this was identified in the Ivy House business plan - is a complete nationally accessible and readily available and adequately resourced skills bank for communities whose pubs are under threat. There are a growing number of agencies who are able to offer support to communities who need it but there are gaps – there needs to be a highly skilled National Community Pub SWAT team that at short notice can look at any given pub situation – take stock and analyse the particular circumstances around each pub and make good quality recommendations to its local community and put them in touch with the right agencies and organisations to prevent them having to reinvent the wheel with every pub – it could probably even be self financing if it were approached sensibly...

Anyhow that is for the future. Now I'm off down the local to sit in the unseasonably good sunshine with a white wine spritzer.

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