Mark Newcombe describes his experience of being involved in a community campaign to buy a pub.

There is no doubt that the real ale tastes much better in the Craufurd Arms since it was bought by the local community. This is not some fanciful flight of the imagination – the beer really does taste better, because after a long period of neglect the pub is on the up and up. Already locals have noticed the quality of the ale has improved – the first and very tangible sign that this new chapter in the life of one of Maidenhead’s oldest established pubs should be a very good one.

But despite a significant improvement in the quality of the beer – which was always one of our key goals once the pub had been saved – there is still a huge amount of work to be done. Sadly, it was not only the regular cleaning of the pipes that had been neglected, the whole fabric of the building is at its best tired, but with the huge amount of goodwill and array of skills we can call upon from our supporters, I feel very positive that none of the tasks that face us cannot be achieved.

I say that with confidence because we managed to overcome the single biggest challenge which was to raise the money to buy the pub. It’s not long ago that a small group of pub regulars sat in the small bar contemplating what looked to be a pretty gloomy future for our pub. There had been disturbing rumors before, so it was no great surprise when word came through from the owners that the Craufurd Arms was to be put up for sale on the open market.

The future did not look bright and the prospect for the 20 or so people gathered that we would need to raise a minimum of £350K to stand a chance of buying the pub seemed like a very remote possibility. But despite the unpromising odds, we had some grounds for optimism. We knew the pub was a viable business, despite the years of neglect and changing management. We had seen examples around the country of other successful community bids to buy pubs and we had a strong team of local supporters and local CAMRA members who were willing to give up time and share their expertise in pursuit of our dream.

From my perspective, the campaign was particularly important coming as it did in the wake of our failed bid to save the nearby Golden Harp pub which two years ago ceased trading and became a supermarket. We learned lessons from that experience – not least of which was; the planning laws needed to change to prevent the unchallenged change of use. Avaricious developers will almost always out bid hastily organised local campaign groups.

This time round we stood a fighting chance as we had listed the pub as an Asset of Community Value the year before, the rival bidders were property speculators and assorted tyre-kickers who were looking to make a fast buck. We felt confident the agent was genuinely keen to see us mount a successful campaign. So, the fund-raising effort began: Emails, websites, leaflets, letters, meetings, social media, interviews, visits, business planning and negotiations. It felt like a full-time job – but as the weeks went by, what had once seemed like a vast mountain began to feel like a peak we could conquer. The two key moments – and this is probably the critical advice to anyone else considering embarking on a similar effort – were the successful backing from the Plunkett Foundation’s Community Pub Business Support Scheme and the launch of our community share offer. The share offer alone helped us raise over £310K – a significant chunk of that was thanks to the Big Society Capital Crowdfunder match fund.  In the end, we raised over £500K to bring the Craufurd Arms into community ownership.

Any campaigner will tell you that achieving success is all about momentum. You need to build up a head of steam which brings people with you and creates a mood of positivity which becomes infectious. Suddenly everyone wants to be involved, offers of help come from unlikely sources, including an extremely generous contribution from Sir Robert and Lady Georgina Craufurd (after whose family the pub is named) and a letter of support from the Prime Minister – OK the pub is in her constituency and there was an election, but it all helped.

So roughly ten months after that small group met for the first time to consider the possibility of buying our pub, I was delighted to be able to send the best email update of them all – the one which confirmed that the Wellington Pub Company had accepted our offer and the pub would be ours.

Once all the euphoria had died down a bit, we were able to consider the future and start putting our plans into action. There is much to be done, but our core belief is that our pint-sized community pub can thrive and prosper as a vital social hub and a profitable business which brings the community together as well as serving a bloody good pint of real ale.

Mark Newcombe is Slough, Windsor and Maidenhead branch’s pub protection officer.

 

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