Community pub at heart of national park

The people of a village in the heart of the South Downs National Park have prevented their only pub, which closed in 2017, being redeveloped as housing by buying it themselves.

On 30 April the Blue Bell in Cocking, West Sussex, was purchased by a community benefit society set up to save the pub and create new facilities for the village.

The Blue Bell is a prominent building in the centre of Cocking that has provided refreshment and hospitality for over 200 years. The business had been running successfully in recent years offering bed and breakfast accommodation and high-quality food which was popular with visitors and some locals. In July 2017 the tenant left following the landlord requiring a substantial increase in the rent. Eventually the building was bought by a property developer who planned to convert the premises into two houses.

The threat of the permanent loss of the pub galvanised local people who were already concerned that the post office and shop were likely to close when the postmaster retired. They successfully opposed the planning application and they conducted a survey and held several public meetings to gather ideas and support for the community ownership of the Blue Bell. It became clear that people didn’t just want to save the old pub: they wanted to create an inclusive community hub that provided a range for facilities and opportunities. The group made a point of talking to those villagers who said they had been made to feel unwelcome by the last tenant. Many of these residents have bought shares in the community benefit society.

The new Blue Bell will provide a warm welcome to all locals and visitors, walkers, cyclists, children and dogs. There will be reasonably priced pub food and a programme of music and other events. Part of the pub will be an information gateway for the South Downs National Park and gift shop with local arts and crafts. There will also be a small bicycle repair workshop.

Peter Gibbon, Chairman of Blue Bell Community Hub Ltd said: “This has really brought the village together and got people from all walks of life talking to each other. One relatively recent new resident told me that she was thinking of moving because she didn’t know anyone and now she wants to stay.”

The building requires significant internal refurbishment and redesign before it opens as the community hub. The accommodation upstairs needs to be made suitable for a resident tenant. It is hoped that the Blue Bell will be open for business later this year.

Peter Gibbon said: “We are continuing with our fundraising efforts. The share offer remains open and people can still invest. We are also holding various events. And we will be drawing on some grants and pledges that we could not access until we owned the building.”

The community share issue has so far raised over £100,000 from 123 local investors. In addition, the community received advice. a grant and a loan under the More Than A Pub programme which was set up in 2016 to support community ownership of pubs in England. This programme is funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Power to Change, and is delivered by Plunkett Foundation. Co-operative & Community Finance arranges loan finance for groups that have successfully attracted local investment, usually in the form of community shares.

Ian Rothwell, Investment Manager for Co-operative & Community Finance, said: “Cocking is quite a diverse village and it is pleasing to see that the group has worked hard to include all sectors of the community. It is also great that South Downs National Park has come on board with a significant investment.”

[The picture shows local residents gathered outside the Blue Bell on a misty morning in January to promote the community share issue. Photo courtesy of Midhurst and Petworth Observer.]