Why Yorkshire is leading the way when it comes to communities taking over mothballed pubs and bringing them back to life

A surge in interest in the co-operative movement has seen Yorkshire emerge at the forefront of campaigns to secure the future of pubs in the heart of communities across the UK.

The importance of pubs has been heightened during the past two years with communities unable to frequent hostelries for prolonged periods during the repeated Covid-19 lockdowns.

The Plunkett Foundation, the charity charged with helping communities in the UK create and run community-owned businesses, has witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of inquiries.

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During the pandemic, the foundation has received 155 inquiries about launching new community pubs, which equates to an increase of 54 per cent.

The Puzzle Hall Inn, Sowerby Bridge

The foundation’s head of policy, Chris Cowcher, told The Yorkshire Post: “The hospitality sector has faced some real challenges during Covid-19 with having to cope with closures during the lockdowns.

“But one good thing that has come of this is that people have realised just how much they have missed their local pub.

Pubs are still a big focal point for so many, and the chance to then form a co-operative means that they can be run by the community for the community.

“That is not to say that there are not some great privately-run pubs that do focus on their local communities, but co-operatives can often be more agile and adapt to what local people really want and need.”

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There has been a dramatic rise in the number of community-run pubs in the past 20 years, with Yorkshire and the Humber registering the highest number of any region in England.

Just four community-run pubs existed nationally in 2001, but that figure had soared to 147 enterprises last year, when a further 15 new ventures were launched.

The Plunkett Foundation is currently liaising with 250 community groups across the UK which are hoping to save pubs through community ownership, and there are now a total of 11 community-run pubs in Yorkshire.

Mr Cowcher said: “Yorkshire is a hugely diverse county, with vast rural areas and big cities, and there are really some proactive communities throughout the region.

“That has undoubtedly helped with establishing pubs run by co-operatives in Yorkshire, and it is a message that hopefully will be heard across the country.”

The survival rate of co-operative run pubs ranks at 99.3 per cent, compared to 44 per cent for small and medium-sized enterprises, according to the Office of National Statistics.

The high success rate is down partly to the pubs being tailored specifically to the needs of the local communities, with the co-operatives able to adapt to customers’ needs and reflect these changes over time.

The Plunkett Foundation has also provided advice on establishing a robust constitution, following legal and financial best practice, to ensure that fledgling co-operatives are given the best chance of survival.

The chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation, James Alcock, claimed that the work of co-operatives has been vital in helping support communities.

Mr Alcock said: “When a local pub disappears so too does the heart of an area. You’re losing more than an iconic building but also the potential it has to offer lifeline services and activities to support local people in need.

“A community-owned pub can also be a café, post office or shop and help its community to safeguard a well-loved pub whilst providing a place to meet for the lonely or isolated, offering work and volunteering opportunities and enabling the village to thrive in the future.

“Community ownership offers a real opportunity to safeguard struggling pubs and we want as many groups as possible seeking our help and support.”

The Plunkett Foundation ran a five-year programme, called More Than A Pub, up until 2021, which witnessed an almost 50 per cent growth in co-operative-run pubs, with 60 enterprises opening.

The programme, which was financed by the Government, provided business development support and funding to enable the community control of pubs in both rural and urban communities across England.

Last year the sector grew by 11 per cent, despite the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the hospitality industry caused by the national lockdowns.

The cost of purchasing a pub, however, can prove daunting for many local communities.

On average, the price of buying a pub for co-operatives in rural areas equates to £324,000, while in towns and cities the cost is even higher, averaging £450,000 although prices do vary significantly.

In rural areas, an average of 214 people invest in a co-operative and raising £231,000 towards buying a pub. Urban co-operatives have an average of 278 members, who raise £156,000.

Other financial streams are available, including the Government’s Community Ownership Fund. Online crowd-funding as well as loans and mortgages have also been used.

The strength of identity that a pub can bring to a local community has been felt particularly keenly in Yorkshire.

It remains the region with the most co-operatives running pubs in the country, with a total of 11 establishments being taken on by local community groups.

The first venture in Yorkshire was the George and Dragon in Hudswell, when a co-operative was established in 2010.

It was recognised by Camra as its national pub of the year six years later, and is now at the heart of the North Yorkshire village’s local community, offering a local shop, a library, community allotments and free internet access.

A succession of other co-operatives have followed, including the Gardeners Rest in Sheffield, which launched on October 1, 2016, and the King’s Head in Gunnerside in the Yorkshire Dales, which has been overseen by the local community since July 22, 2020.

Among the other co-operative pubs in Yorkshire is the Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge, which had closed in January 2016 and subsequently suffered extensive vandalism. But the local community rallied, and the pub re-opened as a co-operative on December 23, 2019, with the aim of bringing “back the romance of good ale and good company”.

The Green Dragon in Exelby in North Yorkshire itself became a community-owned pub in 2018 when the pub-chain owners decided to sell it for development.

It is the only pub in the village and it now also has a café, a bed and breakfast and a shop, and has developed two gardening groups.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Green Dragon expanded its garden area to include igloos, and it has staged its first wedding reception and two folk clubs meet regularly at the pub.

Other co-operative pubs in Yorkshire include the White Horse in Church Fenton, the Bosville Arms in Rudston, near Driffield, and the Foresters Arms in Carlton in Coverdale.

A co-operative took over the Fountain Head Inn in Halifax on February 18, 2020, and the pub, which was built in 1792, was the birthplace of Samuel Webster, who went on to found Websters Brewery.

The Fox and Goose in Hebden Bridge became West Yorkshire’s first community-owned pub when it began to be run by a cooperative on March 22, 2014, and now has more than 300 share-holders.

More details on establishing a co-operative are available from The Plunkett Foundation via www.plunkett.co.uk or by calling its helpline on 0845 557 1469.