“Like two cheeks of the same backside”

A community pub in Devon that has been run successfully by volunteers for eight years, was today (19 July) bought freehold by the local community. The Stoke Canon Inn, just five miles from Exeter, is now owned by a community benefit society with 140 members who have collectively invested £120,000. This investment, together with loans from Co-operative & Community Finance and Triodos Bank, has enabled the villagers to secure the future of their local pub.

The only pub in Stoke Canon (population of 660) closed in 2007 and was sold by the pub company to a property developer. The developer renovated and let the large three-bedroom flat on the first floor but left the pub area on the ground floor empty. After a few years without a pub, the community approached the owner with a proposal to lease the trading part of the premises. An agreement was reached, and a company limited by shares, called Stoke Canon Inn Limited, was set up in April 2011 to take on the lease and run the pub. The company is run as a co-operative with each of the 107 shareholders having an equal investment and just one vote.

For the last eight years the business has been run by a team of some 30 volunteers. There is one employee who is the manager, volunteer co-ordinator and designated premises supervisor. The operation of the kitchen is franchised to a self-employed chef, who has built a good reputation for traditional pub food, Sunday roasts and barbeques.

The pub offers a wide range of activities including darts, live music, bingo, quizzes and meetings of various clubs. It is the focal point for events such as the annual firework display and the Stoke Canon Festival. In October 2018, Stoke Canon Inn was included in the Guardian newspaper’s Top 50 Pubs in the UK

Last year the owner indicated that he wished to sell the premises. The local people, who feared losing their pub for a second time, sought advice from More Than A Pub and The Pub Is The Hub and set up a community benefit society to raise investment and buy the freehold. After a successful community share issue and sale negotiation the pub was bought by Stoke Canon Community Pub Ltd.

The new community benefit society owns the premises and the original company runs the pub as a tenant. The relationship between the two organisations is “like two cheeks of the same backside” said Maggy Clark, Chair of Stoke Canon Community Pub Ltd. “Many people have shares in both. It was less complicated to set up a new structure to attract the investment we needed for the purchase than to change the rules of the existing company.”

Because the community was already running the pub, the business of serving food and drinks has continued without interruption. However, the transfer of ownership will make a big difference to other things. The community benefit society will receive rent from the first floor flat, after it has been refurbished and let, and this will help to repay the loans. Maggy Clark says that several local trades persons have offered their services at very low rates or even free because they know that the building, car park and garden belongs to the village.

“We will continue to run the pub in the same way, with a paid manager and a team of volunteers. It works well, it makes people feel good and it holds the community together,” said Maggy Clark. “I’d recommend this to anyone like me who is retired. Otherwise we’d just be gardening.”

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, which has recently been renewed, 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: “Usually I don’t get to see the pub operational when carrying out an appraisal, but here I could see the pub in action, taste the food and meet the bar manager, chef, local activists and customers. The pub had a great feel to it and certainly the customers I met were really engaged and relished the opportunity to purchase it.”

Bar staff volunteers Pete, Maureen and Alison with manager Jodie (right), who is the only employee.