Image for All hands to the pumps: the colourful rise of community-owned pubs

All hands to the pumps: the colourful rise of community-owned pubs

People all over the UK are coming together to save their local pubs. More than simply having somewhere to go for a drink, it’s about satisfying a thirst for community

People all over the UK are coming together to save their local pubs. More than simply having somewhere to go for a drink, it’s about satisfying a thirst for community

In a remote part of the west Highlands of Scotland, a pub sits on the shore of the Knoydart peninsula. With views over the blue waters of Loch Nevis and the surrounding hilly, lush landscapes, The Old Forge is the beating heart of the village of Inverie, a close-knit community with around 120 full-time residents. So remote is this pub, that if you live outside of the village, it’s only accessible by a 30-minute ferry from the nearest port, or – for the more hardcore – a two-day hike.  

But this isn’t the only unusual thing about this local watering hole. Since March 2022, The Old Forge has been a community-owned pub. Exactly what it sounds like, a community pub is owned and run by locals, who all have an equal say in how the business is run.  

After finding out that The Old Forge was going up for sale in January 2021, locals discussed buying it under community ownership. They decided to go for it and, after months of hard work, they opened in April 2022. “We live in a small community with not a lot of places to go, so the pub is an important place for people to come together,” says the pub’s business development manager Stephanie Harris. And as for the views? “It’s probably one of the best pub beer garden views. The landscape is all around you.” 

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While The Old Forge is certainly unique in some ways, it’s also part of a swelling trend when it comes to community-owned pubs. According to the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that helps people set up community-owned businesses, there are 174 community-owned pubs in the UK, as of January 2024. Research from trade body Co-Operatives UK found that the number of community-owned pubs in the UK has increased by 62.6% over the last five years. This comes at a time when pubs are increasingly under threat – following the struggles of the pandemic they are facing rising energy costs and inflation. In 2023, 509 pubs closed down, and the UK has lost 6% of its pubs in the last six years, according to the British Beer and Pub Association.  

While times are tough for pubs, community pubs seem to be thriving: data from The Plunkett Foundation indicates that they have a 99% success rate. 

The number of community pubs is on the rise, but it’s not a totally new concept. ​The first pub of this kind in Britain was The Red Lion in Preston, Hertfordshire, which has been run this way since the early 1980s. In London, the city’s oldest community-owned pub is The Ivy House in Nunhead, which opened in 2013. The Rising Sun in Woodcroft, Chepstow won The Campaign for Real Ale’s (Camra’s) Pub Saving Award in 2023. But to get to that point, the community faced a 10-year tussle with developers. They finally opened in October 2022. 

local pubs

Music nights have been a huge success at The Old Forge in the Highlands of Scotland. Image: The Old Forge CBS

But what sets these pubs apart from your average boozer? Of course, there’s the logistical and funding side of things. Usually, communities raise the funds to purchase a pub through a mix of crowdfunding, community shares, loans and government grants. The majority of community pubs are incorporated as Community Benefit Societies, which is a not-for-profit business model.  

While the organisation might be owned by lots of people, it’s usually run by a management committee. “Community-owned pubs are businesses that are genuinely owned by local people, where members have equal and democratic control,” says Claire Spendley, head of community business at The Plunkett Foundation. “Community shares play a huge part in building a customer base and creating a sense of pride in the business – a form of voluntary, open and affordable membership that allows local people to invest. They operate on a one-member, one-vote basis, ensuring local residents have a say in how the business is run.”  

For many of these places, the real difference is how it serves the local community, beyond a decent pint. For James Gadsby Peet, co-founder and director at The Star of Greenwich in south London, this is key. He’s lived in the area for 15 years and runs the pub alongside fellow locals Kirsty Dunlop and Lisa Donohoe.  

They’ve made a genuine friendship that would have never happened otherwise – and their lives are richer for it

'I see it as a community hub that’s enabled by the income from a pub, as opposed to just being a pub,’ says James Gadsy Peet of the Star of Greenwich. Image: Josh Bright

“Our aim is to improve the community and make the neighbourhood a nicer place to be by people spending more time with one another,’ says Gadsby Peet. “I see it as a community hub that’s enabled by the income from a pub, as opposed to just being a pub.”  

On first impressions, the pub might look like your classic East End neighbourhood boozer. Wood-panelled l-shaped bar? Check. Floral-patterned red carpet? Check. Dartboard? Check. But as well as the main bar, there’s another room that the pub often rents out for no cost – it’s used for a regular children’s stay and play sessions hosted by a local provider, English lessons for refugees and meetings for charities. While the pub doesn’t do food, it hosts pop-ups with Plateful Cafe, a community organisation that trains and employs refugee chefs. 

At The Old Forge, the committee regularly asks locals what they think about the pub, whether that’s what’s on the menu or the events programme – live music nights with local musicians have been a huge hit. Spendley says that being able to adapt in response to the community’s feedback is what makes these places so successful. “Member control and input ensures the business is continually adapting and serving the needs of its members and wider community – that’s what gives community-owned pubs such longevity.” 

A thirst for community: 'railway workers, City number-crunchers and retired pensioners' spend time side by side at the Star of Greenwich. Image: Josh Bright

While the funding structures of these businesses can vary, the focus is often not on profit. “We’re set up as a community benefit society, so we’re not able to make a profit. Any money we make goes back into running of the community asset,” says Gadsby Peet. He does not take a salary, but the pub’s bar staff are paid. Meanwhile Harris says they have a “pretty comprehensive business plan” and would like to be able to generate some profit so that they can reinvest this into the business, or invest in other projects in the area that have a community benefit.  

At the heart of it, these spaces are about creating connections. “The idea is to bring people together who wouldn’t normally meet,” says Gadsby Peet. At the Star of Greenwich, you’ll find all sorts of people chatting – railway workers, City number-crunchers and retired pensioners. Gadsby Peet gives the example of some of their regulars, a couple in their 30s and two brothers who have been drinking in the pub since they were teenagers in the 50s. “They’ve made genuine friendships. They go out for dinner outside of the pub. That relationship would have never happened otherwise – and their lives are richer for it,” he says. 

There’s no doubt that running these places is a labour of love and often involves people giving up their time for free. What drives them to keep going? “As more parts of our world become polarised, and people spend less time together, I think these community spaces where people can meet each other are becoming more important. And at exactly the same time, there are fewer of them,” says Gadsby Peet. “That’s the big idea behind it. Rather than drinking or food, it’s about people.”

Main image: Mark Harris

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