Plan to save Yorkshire’s threatened shops and pubs

With just six miles of rolling North Yorkshire countryside separating Skeeby and Hudswell, the two North Yorkshire villages have much in common.

7th January 2011. The Little Shop at the George and Dragon pub, Hudswell near Richmond. Pictured Lorna Chapman volunteer helper greets a customer on entering the Little Shop. PICTURE GERARD BINKS

With just six miles of rolling North Yorkshire countryside separating Skeeby and Hudswell, the two North Yorkshire villages have much in common.

The populations are almost identical - according to the last census, Hudswell’s 353 residents were just four short of Skeeby’s population of 357, house prices are largely the same and both have a church and a thriving village hall

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However, despite the similarities, Skeeby can’t help eyeing its neighbour - more specifically its pub - with a degree of jealousy. It was back in 2008 that the George and Dragon in Hudswell called last orders. It was a blow for the area, but a little over two years later it became North Yorkshire’s first ever community owned pub.

Opened by Richmond MP and self-confessed real ale drinker William Hague, it also doubles as a shop and a library and Skeeby hoped it could do the same.

When the time the Traveller’s Rest closed a couple of years ago, the village had already lost its shop and in an attempt to prevent the pub going the same way, a number of regulars decided to get together to save the place.

“For years the pub had been in private hands, but when the owners retired it was bought by one of the big pub chains,” says Paul Bell, one of the founder members of Skeeby Community Pub Group. “Successive landlords struggled to make a go of it and then all of a sudden it closed. We thought it might be a good opportunity to look at community ownership and we put a lot of work into putting together a business plan, but sadly negotiations stalled.”

The Traveller’s Rest is now up for sale again, but with the current owner having removed the public toilets and part of the bar area, the group fear that it might now cost them too much to re-open it as a pub. They haven’t entirely given up hope, but with the local shop having had an unlikely rebirth as a tattoo parlour, they know all too well that once a facility is lost it’s hard to get it back again.

It’s the kind of story James Alcock from the Plunkett Foundation hears all the time. The organisation was founded in 1906 to “promote rural commerce and social cohesion” and its track record is impressive. Just 13 of the 300 or so community shops it has helped open have closed and while commercial businesses have a five year survival rate of around 45 per cent, its rate is around 96 per cent.

The foundation has been particularly active in the South West which at the last count was home to 92 community shops with a further 53 in the pipeline, but it is now hoping to turn its attention to Yorkshire.

Latest figures showed that as of last year there were just 10 community shops trading in the county with another eight planned and just a handful of community pubs. The Plunkett Foundation now wants to help save at least a further five businesses in Yorkshire within the next 12 months and is appealingto village groups to take the first step and contact them.

“Shops, pubs and post offices are all vital to village life, yet over the last few decades so many of them have been consigned to history,” says James. “However, there is a way back. Every year 400 commercial village shops close each year and while we can’t save every one of them we can make significant in roads.

“People say, ‘well if a shop isn’t profitable then may be there isn’t a case for keeping it open’, but community ventures work on a different set of principles and they can often succeed where a traditional commercial business might not.

“More often than not a community is keen to support a shop in which they have an economic and social interest, staff costs can be reduced through the use of volunteers and because it is owned by its members they are more likely to respond quickly to the needs of the customers.

“We are there to support groups from the initial idea to developing a business plan and then turning that business plan into reality. There are a huge amount of things to think about, from where you are going to get your stock, to how you are going to staff it and the best way to pay utility bills. That can seem overwhelming at first, particularly if the group involved has no direct experience of running their own business, but that’s what we are here for.”

The traditional British pub has fared just as badly as the small independent shop. According to the Campaign for Real Ale, the first six months of 2009 marked the peak of decline when 52 pubs were closing each week.

However, while that has now slowed to 31 a week, loopholes in current planning laws mean many developers are earmarkingvillage pubs as ripe for conversion or demolition. CAMRA is now lobbying MPs to sign an early day motion aimed at tightening the regulations and safeguarding the country’s remaining 55,000 pubs.

Burton in Lonsdale, nestled on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, has already seen a successful community takeover of the shop and with the Blackburn-based brewer Thwaites having put the Punch Bowl on the market for £275,000 they are now hoping to take on the village’s only pub as well.

“The shop has been up and running for nine years now and has really shown what’s possible,” says parish clerk and shop volunteer Susan Gregory, who is also one of a team drawing up plans for a community pub. “Like a lot of villages our nearest big supermaket is at least six or seven miles away and not having our own shop would have had a big impact on village life.

“It’s always been more than somewhere just to buy groceries. It’s also the post office and for some of our elderly residents it’s a lifeline. They can ring up with an order knowing that someone will pop round with their shopping, a sandwich or a cup of hot soup. It does take a lot of organisation, particularly when it comes to running the rota for volunteers, but what we’ve learned will hopefully put us in a good position when it comes to the pub.”

The villagers are now working closely with the Plunkett Foundation and while the proposal is in its early stages they have already had a significant amount of money pledged by those keen to become members of the community pub.

“Because the pub is still open, at the moment it’s hard to make people aware that it could be under threat,” says Susan. “However, in the six weeks since we launched the £350,000 community share issue we have already been pledge £50,000. All the experts say that £100,000 is the magic target. Basically, if you can get to that, then raising the rest of the money suddenly becomes a lot easier.

“Everyone involved knows that this is just the start of a long road. If we are succesful, that’s when the hard work will really start, but our village needs its pub and we will do anything we can to save it.”