Putting Otley on the pub map

Pubs are shutting at an alarming rate, but one Yorkshire town is bucking the trend '“ and could point the way forward for other communities. Andrew Vine reports.

Ale trail: Otleys pubs are at the heart of community life in the market town. Greg Mulholland, front left, seen here with members of Otley Pub Club.

Saturday afternoon, and Otley’s Market Square is buzzing. The stalls selling fruit, vegetables, clothing and housewares are all busy and the pavements thronged with shoppers.

Among them are plenty taking a break from hauling their bags home by popping in to one or other of the pubs. It’s the shortest of steps from the stalls to the stone-flagged, low-beamed Black Bull, doing a brisk trade just as it has since Cromwell’s Roundheads steeled themselves for the battle of Marston Moor by drinking it dry in 1644.

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A few streets away, the Rose and Crown, in Bondgate, dating from 1731, is also reasonably busy, and will be packed later on when the historic surroundings are home to the weekend disco.

There seems to be a pub round every corner in Otley, 20 of them, which is a surprisingly high number for a town of 14,000 people, and more than are found in most city suburbs of similar size. And they are thriving, which makes Otley one of the most unusual places in the country. Whilst elsewhere pubs are closing or being converted to other uses, here they are doing well, the number up from 18 three years ago.

That is thanks to a concerted drive by the community to support and promote them – which could provide a model for other places to follow in saving their pubs. In Otley, they are no longer just drinking places, but hubs of the town’s life, home to community groups and arts events, even an attraction for visitors.

A key role in preserving and promoting them is played by Otley Pub Club, a non-profit community organisation founded eight years ago, which works not only to act as a cheerleader, but has led the way in gaining a measure of protection for pubs from closure. Each of Otley’s pubs is designated as asset of community value (ACV), which effectively means they cannot be shut and converted to another use without the people of the town having a say.

Times aren’t easy for pubs. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), 21 shut every week. That rate of decline has slowed over the last couple of years but from December 2015 to June this year, Britain still lost 549 pubs, part of the 6,000 that have gone over the past decade.

High rents and wholesale beer prices are part of the problem, but so is consumer behaviour. There are those who turn misty-eyed when talking about pubs as places of good cheer and lively conversation, but rarely step across the threshold of one, preferring to drink relatively cheap alcohol from supermarkets at home.

These factors have brought Otley its share of closures. There were once more than 30 pubs, a legacy of its heritage as a market town. When licensing laws compelled pubs to shut during the day, in towns with a market they could remain open.

A spate of losses prompted a drive to do something. The Summercross closed in 2007 despite local opposition and protests to Leeds City Council. Then The Yeoman and The Woolpack followed.

The closures spurred Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland to propose the idea of the club eight years ago, writing to Otley Town Council and the pubs. “Having lost a valued local pub despite a vigorous community campaign I felt we should be trying to get a permanent community organisation together,” says Mulholland – chair of the All Party Parliamentary Save the Pub Group.

Although CAMRA branches fight to save threatened pubs, Otley Pub Club has gone a step further, says Mulholland, who is its president. “I think the fundamental difference is that Otley Pub Club was set up to support and promote the pubs, not just to react and fight closure, but to positively promote the pubs. It has boosted the reputation of Otley as a famous pub town due to the licensing laws and the market.

“It is unusual and it’s been very positive to have a volunteer-led community organisation doing it because it believes pubs are important and wants to celebrate, promote and preserve them. There is no financial benefit to the volunteers, but it’s a way for the community to show support for the pubs, and for people in the town and beyond to find out what is going on in the pubs.”

That is done by a monthly newsletter emailed to 400 supporters and a website which promotes the pubs. Pub club chairman Andy FitzGerald became involved after researching Otley’s pub history, and believes that the town continues to embrace them because they are so intertwined with its heritage. “Otley’s pubs are a fundamental part of its history,” he says. “It’s always been a market town, and the pubs have helped to shape its character.

“It’s sad when you travel to other places and you see pubs that are closed up. We even have some in Otley, but it still has the feel that it’s a place to go for a night out.”

The club’s hand in keeping Otley’s pubs open was strengthened by the Government’s introduction of ACV regulations in 2012. It gave communities the chance to apply to their local council to have pubs protected against being converted to other uses.

Until then, under permitted development rules, they could become shops or other business premises without planning permission being sought. “Up and down the country people have seen pubs closed overnight against the wishes of the community, and often against the wishes of the licensee,” says Mulholland. “The only way currently that a community can know that a local pub won’t be turned into a shop without them having a say is to get it ACV status, which is why Otley Pub Club did that.”

The move met with surprisingly little opposition from the pub owners, with only three appealing against the ACV applications, and then unsuccessfully. In tandem with taking action to keep pubs open, the club has gone all out to promote them.

FitzGerald says Otley Pub Club was set up to campaign to preserve the pubs. “That has evolved slightly, and we’re able to work more positively in creating events to promote the use of the pubs, which helps to preserve them. Pubs have always been a focal point of British life, and for a small place, Otley has a lot going on. There are various societies and organisations that take advantage of the pubs to provide meeting venues or put on events.”

It is possible that Otley could provide an example for other places which want to safeguard and promote their pubs, believes Mulholland.

He said: “I think it’s a model that could work elsewhere and the club would be very happy for other communities to adopt it and take that forward. It could work very well to show that a community does recognise and value its pubs, and make it clear that they’re very important to that community which then champions them.”

Drinking to the town’s success

Otley Pub Club has scored some major successes in promoting the town. In 2014, when Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France came to Yorkshire, all the pubs were renamed in French, attracting publicity from as far away as the United States and Russia.

The club also invented a cocktail to mark Otley cyclist Lizzie Armitstead’s world championship title last year. The town’s heritage featured on television chefs’ the Hairy Bikers series, The Pubs That Built Britain, earlier this year.

The club has also published the Historic Otley Ale Trail, exploring both the town’s current and lost pubs. Last month, in partnership with Otley Word Feast Press the club launched Half Moon: Poems about Pubs to mark National Poetry Day.

Further details can be found at www.otleypubclub.co.uk