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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

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Cumbrians putting their money where their mouths are to save services

The people of Hesket Newmarket didn’t want to lose their pub. So they decided to buy it and run it themselves. In Nenthead the locals didn’t fancy a 10-mile round trip to buy a pint of milk. So when the village shop closed, they bought it and ran it themselves.

Alston folk didn’t want to be bypassed by the information superhighway. So they created their own, paying local contractors to lay broadband cables.

Cumbrian communities are taking DIY to extreme levels. In rural areas across the UK when traditional business models fail, people power is taking over.

And Cumbrians are at the forefront of this movement, putting their money where their mouths are to save local services.

Pubs, shops and broadband are among the subjects of community share schemes. People buy a share in a service. Their cash, and their passion, helps keep it alive.

A free event in Penrith next Wednesday will give people advice on how to make community share schemes work in their area. Participants will hear from Cumbrians who have made a big difference to local lives this way.

Where there is a will and a wad of cash, it seems there is a way to save just about anything.

The granddaddy of Cumbria’s community share schemes is The Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket, near Caldbeck.

This is the UK’s first co-operatively owned pub. In 2001 the landlord was selling up and locals were concerned that their 18th-century pub might close, or be bought by a major brewer and stripped of its character.

After two years of negotiation, the new owners stepped forward – all 125 of them.

The Old Crown was bought by its customers. The 125 each purchased a £1,500 share, raising £187,500.

Julian Ross, a freelance translator from Carlisle, was instrumental in the campaign. He has since found himself in demand from people all over the country seeking advice on resurrecting their village pub.

“Each project can be different. But they all need the figures to stack up, in the same way they do in any business.

“The big advantage for community projects is that mostly the people are volunteers. The finances aren’t being taken out of the businesses, they’re being put back in.”

The Old Crown’s co-operative aims to pay an annual dividend; currently about 3.5 per cent. Although this compares favourably with most savings accounts, making money is not the main motivation for The Old Crown’s shareholders.

“I wouldn’t like to analyse the business models of public companies,” says Julian. “But our philosophy is very different. We’re not looking to make much money, although we want our tenants to make money. We want the pub to survive and thrive.

“Once the community gets involved, that brings the business to life. Because they’re involved, financially and emotionally, they start to use it more.

“The Old Crown seems to be going through the recession pretty well in an environment where pubs are closing. Hesket Newmarket is very fortunate to have a pub and a shop and Post Office. These are the things every community says they want. It makes a huge difference.”

It may sound like an attractive business model. But nine years after The Old Crown’s pioneers bought their pub, there are only another eight co-operatively-owned pubs in the UK.

Julian says: “I think it’s an awful lot to do with the people involved. Everybody was hugely supportive in the community but you need somebody to marshal the community spirit.

“Sometimes it’s quite daunting. It’s a lot of hard work and there isn’t an awful lot of joined-up help available.

“The first year was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And probably also the most rewarding.”

Three of the UK’s nine co-operatively-owned pubs are in Cumbria. The Butchers Arms at Crosby Ravensworth, near Penrith, was saved after a community campaign raised £300,000. A co-operative relaunched the pub last September, a year after it closed.

Villagers at Ennerdale Bridge in the western Lakes had already lost their shop and many bus services when their pub, The Fox and Hounds, closed too.

Locals were given just 10 days to raise £67,000 to take over the lease.

Peter Maher led the campaign. He recalls: “There was a fair amount of scepticism when I stood up and said we needed to raise £67,000 in 10 days. But we raised it in eight days.”

The Fox and Hounds currently has 217 shareholders who have stumped up a total of £89,850.

The pub reopened last April after villagers bought and renovated it in just six weeks. The takeover has been a big success, with turnover exceeding £270,000.

Almost 40 per cent of shareholders invested the minimum £100. “We put the hurdle at a very low level for maximum participation,” says Peter. “Why should this pub survive when so many are closing? Because we have 217 shareholders with a vested interest in using it and keeping it open.

“The investment is more than money. It’s time as well. In the lead-up to the opening we had 100 people painting and decorating, cleaning and gardening.

“We have paid staff but we rely on volunteers. Twice a week I go and work behind the bar and wait on tables.”

Peter thinks this model could work anywhere which has people with the determination to make it happen.

And he is in no doubt about the importance of the pub to its community.

“It’s more than a pub. You can have a cup of tea and a cake in the morning. We have a mini library thanks to our link-up with Cumbria Library Service. It serves a purpose far beyond a place for a couple of blokes to go and have a pint.”

Villagers now plan to create a combined shop and visitor centre, fuelled by the belief that running the pub has given them.

“The village shop closed about three years ago. The nearest is two miles away in Arlecdon and there’s no bus service.

“We persuaded the Forestry Commission to give us a bit of land for a shop. Now we’re looking to raise £120,000. We’ll be looking for probably £40-50,000 from shares and the rest from grants. I’d be really disappointed if it wasn’t ready for Easter next year.”

Peter will be among the speakers at next week’s community share schemes open day in Penrith. The event is organised by Alston-based broadband co-operative Cybermoor Networks.

For the past 10 years Cybermoor has been keeping the remote Alston Moor area connected to the rest of the world by providing broadband.

Its network is owned by the community rather than a corporate business. Cybermoor Networks has used local contractors to lay cables for homes and businesses.

Now it is aiming to raise £100,000 to buy and dig the latest fibre-optic cable, said to be ‘future-proof’ for 30 years.

Cybermoor has secured £300,000 from the Rural Development Programme for England, and is looking to raise a further £100,000 by the end of March through a share offer.

Daniel Heery, project manager at Cybermoor Networks, says: “We had an idea that local people could do this at a much lower cost than the big engineering and communications companies.

“It’s not going to generate massive profits but it will bring a range of benefits to the community.

“I think we’d be waiting a long time for the big operators to come in. Because it’s so unlikely we’d ever get anything, we have to take it in our own hands.”

Daniel will be sharing his experiences at next week’s Penrith event. He feels the model of community ownership can be used for a range of things, as long as the community is willing.

“It needs people who are quite dynamic and entrepreneurial. And communities that are relatively remote, where people don’t necessarily expect big private sector companies to come in.

“You wouldn’t expect Whitbread or Punch to come and take over a small village pub. People in places like Alston Moor know if they want something they have to do it themselves.”

Another example is Nenthead Community Shop and Post Office. This closed in 2007, leaving villagers with a 10-mile round trip to Alston for a loaf of bread or a pint of milk.

After seven months villagers formed a co-operative and bought the business. Five years on it is thriving.

“The community involvement has been the x-factor that has saved it,” says Daniel.

“There are risks. If the business doesn’t succeed you’re not going to get a dividend. But if you look at the number of community shops around the country, I know of between 50 and 60 and only three or four have failed.

“More and more people are wondering if they really want their money to go into the banks to pay big bonuses and earn derisory interest. In community share schemes they can potentially earn a greater return and help the community.”

The attraction of DIY in rural Cumbria appears to be part principle, part necessity.

“No one else will do it for you,” says Peter Maher. “And it empowers communities. The impact on the community at Ennerdale Bridge has been brilliant.

“The self-belief, the social interaction, with people working for a common aim. It’s not just about facilities. It’s about bringing a community back together.”

The community shares event takes place next Wednesday from 10am to 4pm at Penrith Players Theatre. For more information and to reserve a place call 01434 382808 or email sue.gilbertson@ cybermoor.org.uk

To find out more about Cybermoor Networks share offer email info@cybermoor.org.uk

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