Fund Our Fun is a series celebrating the UK’s music and nightlife industries, and a rallying call to protect them. Read more here, and check out our interactive map of at-risk venues here, to find ways to help your local spaces.
I have a pre-pandemic memory of being huddled in the wood-panelled front room of The Ivy House pub, tucked away on a residential street in south London. There was a wedding reception going on in the two main rooms at the back, so all of us remaining Friday night drinkers were crammed into the toasty front bar, squeezed around tables, propped up on low stools and piles of discarded outerwear. A fire was roaring in the hearth and, occasionally, the doors would spring open, revealing the happy clamour of the wedding revellers, dancing underneath the mirrorball in the pub’s spectacular 1930s music hall.
One extraordinary year later, I would hand over my liver to be back there. British boozers are in a state of crisis. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) describes the pandemic’s threat to our pubs as even greater than that posed by the Second World War – more than 2,000 are thought to have closed in 2020 alone. Under current plans for lockdown easing, venues will not be allowed to open for outdoor drinking until at least the 12th of April, with indoor service following on the 17th of May at the earliest.
“It is bloody awful out there at the moment,” says Paul Ainsworth, chair of the Pubs Campaigns Committee for CAMRA, AKA the Campaign for Real Ale. “Pubs are really having a terrible time, and there are bound to be multiple casualties – the outgoings are still mounting up and there's no income coming in."
Even prior to the pandemic, the “death of the British pub” has been a talking point for longer than I can remember. In fact, longer than I’ve been allowed to drink in them; numbers have been falling drastically since the 1990s. In small towns and villages with dwindling populations they are often financially unsustainable, while pubs in cities operate amid stiff competition, paying sky-high rents, with the smiting hand of property developers hovering above them.
The simple tragedy is that a pub building, or the land that it stands upon, is almost always worth more to its owners as housing than it is as a pub – particularly in urban areas, and even more so in gentrifying urban areas. And one thing we can all agree on is that cities like London, Manchester and Bristol need more luxury flats, right? Even before coronavirus, big city pubs were suffering. A BBPA survey in 2019 found London had 40 pubs for every 100,000 people – by far the lowest in the country. Britain’s south west has almost double that rate, with 76 pubs per 100,000 people.
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, the worry now is that vast numbers of pubs – already operating on perilously fine margins, after more than a year of lockdowns, debt accumulation and ever-changing restrictions – will not come out the other side at all. It’s a staggering statistic, but the BBPA estimate that as many as 12,000 out of the UK’s 47,000 pubs may never reopen.
One possible solution to this crisis can be found amid those same cosy, wood-panelled walls of The Ivy House. In April of 2012 the pub was closed and sold to a property developer who planned to gut the beautiful period building – tiled spittoon trough and all – and turn it into flats. But the regulars moved quickly and cleverly, getting the building Grade II-listed by English Heritage just two days before it closed down. They then applied to Southwark Council to have it listed as an “Asset of Community Value”, or ACV – a new status created by the 2011 Localism Act, a tangible outcome of David Cameron’s otherwise flabby notion of “the big society”. If a local council decides to award ACV status to a building, it protects it from immediate sale, granting a six-month moratorium in which a local community group can try to organise to mount a bid themselves, before it returns to the open market.
The Ivy House became the first pub in the UK to be designated an ACV – and from there, the locals launched into a frenzy of fundraising, buying the building off the owners before it could be sold to a residential property developer, and relaunched it as a community-owned, community-run pub. Following months of bureaucracy, campaigning and grant and loan applications, The Ivy House Community Pub Limited was formed as a co-operative, issued shares, restored the interior to its 1930s glory and re-opened to the public in August of 2013.
It was a triumph – but it had been anything but straightforward. Dominic Coyte, Ivy House drinker, neighbour and now member of the pub’s management committee, was not optimistic at the time.
“It's not a fair fight, really, trying to save your local – and in the past it's not been a fight that communities have fought with much success,” he says. “You can have good intentions, placards and community support – but the bulldozers usually still ride in.”
The ACV status and process offered a new line of defence for embattled pubs – but Coyte’s fellow drinkers still needed to summon a great amount of legal expertise, time, energy and cunning, before even getting to the question of money.
"There's a big range of skills needed, there's the time needed, and the capital needed – I was quite astonished they managed to do it,” says Coyte. “It's a lot of work, and a lot of responsibility, but if you can gather a great team of people around you, and the fight is there, it’s an achievable goal.”
Built in the 1930s and originally called the Newlands Tavern, The Ivy House is an example of the period’s fashion for “improved public houses” – pubs with a range of facilities such as function rooms, dance halls, dining rooms and accommodation, intended to provide a greater range of entertainments and draw a crowd beyond blokes with pints. It’s a vision of the pub as a multifaceted, inclusive space that is true of the reborn Ivy House today.
“Even if it was just a place to sell beer and nothing more, it would still function as an asset to the community,” says Coyte. “But when you've got this amazing stage and music hall space, the different rooms and the community focus, it becomes a hub for so many different activities. You’ve got drama and school groups using it, gigs, poetry readings, comedy, theatre, weddings, funerals."
The Ivy House may be an exceptional pub, but it is not alone. There are, CAMRA estimate, now about 2,500 ACV pubs nationwide. ACV status does not in itself “save” a pub from the smiting hand of the developers and turn it over to community ownership – but if the local authority agrees to award ACV status, it gives the community a six-month window, and the right to bid on the pub that is up for sale.
Another notable example is the legendary LGBTQ+ venue the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which was awarded ACV status in 2014, a life-saving intervention after years of heavy losses, with residential developer Bespoke Homes looming over them ready to buy. The owners of another much-loved live music pub and LGBTQ+ venue in Lewisham, the idiosyncratic Montague Arms, have just submitted a planning application to demolish it – proposing instead to build a bland four-storey residential building, with a smaller pub contained within it.
“ACV buys time, as much as anything else,” says Ainsworth. “It buys time for community groups to get their act together.”
Just a few miles east of The Ivy House, in Lewisham, Lenny Watson has just begun her own campaign to rescue, buy and relaunch another 1930s pub, the Ravensbourne Arms. Watson graduated with a fine art degree and began volunteering at Deptford’s Sister Midnight Records – a record shop, bar and live music venue – before taking over running it in 2018 at the age of just 23. “Places like Sister Midnight are the seed-bed of the music industry, and we're losing them so rapidly,” Watson says. With their current site tiny, cramped and unventilated, it didn’t feel right for a post-COVID transition period, so after ten months of research and planning, she has ambitiously set her sights on the Ravensbourne Arms.
“I never do things by halves,” she laughs. “It's been on the market for a year-and-a-half. I think the plan is to prove that no one has any interest in taking it on as a pub, so they can reapply to change its use to residential. And I'm here to ruin this plan! Because I think it's the perfect space for a community-owned live music pub, a home for the thriving music and creative scene in south London – and one which is accessible, inclusive and affordable for local people."
The ACV legislation may not be the exact tool they go for – it’s somewhat redundant at the moment, in that the Ravensbourne Arms is already on the market as a pub – but Watson intends to use a related tool, the establishment of a Community Benefit Society, the same democratic, non-profit business structure used successfully by The Ivy House, to raise capital and get the local community involved.
"If communities were aware that there is a process like this which isn't totally impossible to follow, and knew about tools like ACVs and community benefit societies, where the community can bring the pub into their ownership and run it for their benefit, maybe we'd see more of it happening,” Watson says. “The funding and support is definitely out there to bring these kinds of projects to fruition."
Dominic Coyte shares this optimism. While the paperwork and planning laws may seem daunting, he says, there are numerous funding and advisory bodies out there – not to mention other community-run pubs, like The Ivy House, willing to offer help based on their experience.
CAMRA and the BBPA are keen to point out that community ownership is not going to save the tens of thousands of pubs currently under threat by itself. Indeed, while Rishi Sunak’s recent unveiling of a £150 million Community Ownership Fund was welcomed by some in the pub industry, Co-op Party general secretary Joe Fortune argued that the funding must come with “systemic legal and regulatory change” to truly support Britain’s pubs. CAMRA’s Paul Ainsworth thinks that the first line of defence is the planning system – pub owners need planning permission if they want to change the building’s use to flats (or a WeWork, escape room, dungeon or anything else) – so local officials need to be vigilant.
Ainsworth explains: “We are aware that planning authorities are getting rafts of opportunistic applications at the moment, which do play the COVID card – owners saying, ‘Well, this is the final straw for this pub. It was already hard work, so please, Mr. Planner, can we have a change of use to build some flats?’”
In this context, an ACV listing for an endangered pub can still help, says Ainsworth – even if the local community don’t go to the next stage and buy out the pub themselves. "It sends a clear message that the pub is valued by local people, and that can be very useful in warding off unwanted planning applications.”
There is another possible post-COVID outcome for your favourite cash-strapped, independent pub or venue. In January, it was reported that both Wetherspoons and the Greene King chain are hatching plans and raising capital to buy up small pubs and bars threatened with closure by the pandemic.
"It’s horrible for the businesses which are closing, but from CAMRA's point of view, we'd much rather pubs stay open than close," says Ainsworth.
This makes sense. But for drinkers interested in quality and variety rather than quantity of boozers, the idea of the further homogenisation and blandification of British town centres by chain pubs is not a huge consolation. And such buy-outs will only come to the rescue of certain types of pub in any case.
"It’s smaller-scale, ‘wet-led’ pubs which have really suffered,” Ainsworth says, “because they've been less able to trade even than other pubs. They've been hammered, and Wetherspoons aren't going to buy a small thatched local in a remote village, they're interested in big high street pubs."
Among its countless other seismic tremors, the coronavirus pandemic has recast the way we think about the ground beneath our feet, and around our homes. Almost all of us have become hyperlocal beings in the last year. This has given rise to enthusiastic discussion of the idea of the “15-minute city”, whereby everything you need – culturally, socially, commercially, professionally, medically, administratively – is located within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from your front door. And at the heart of this idealised near-future? The local pub, of course. As we all trudge around our teeming local parks for the sixth weekend in a row, the absence of shared social spaces with walls, roofs, furniture, toilets, central heating and Kernel Pale Ale on tap has never been more painfully felt. In a sense, all pubs are community pubs – so why don’t we classify them as such?
“It's still the focal point of the area,” says Coyte fondly, reflecting on the success of the country’s first asset of community value. “When The Ivy House’s predecessor pub closed, our street just became a thoroughfare to get to somewhere else. It became the suburbs, basically – and you don't come to Peckham to be a part of the suburbs, you come to be a part of a community. Even during that period last year when we could only sell takeaway pints, it became this focal point, lighting up the area during dark times. If the pub wasn’t there, we’d all be so much more atomised.”