Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Can we find new uses for our empty pubs to benefit the community?
I have been thinking about two problems and wondering if they could be brought together to create two solutions.
We have been approached countless times by community groups who are desperate for a building from where they can run their organisations. Urban First Aid for instance would like somewhere to store their first aid stuff and to train their first aiders and for a little office. The Polish community would like their own Polish club. The Liverpool African Association would like a centre, the Indian Protestants would like somewhere they could turn into a small church and Open Circle would like a youth club - and I could go on at length.
But we don't have any buildings and we don't have any money to provide any buildings.
What we do have though, is an increasing number of shut-down pubs. I have not counted them all, but there are probably 10 in our ward alone. They mainly have "For Sale" or "To Let" signs outside but we all know they will stay empty. Nobody is buying pubs and I cannot see any time when they will. Even the Phythian with its controversial planning permission for a bar, shop and flats, shows no sign of work starting. In fact it is beginning to fall down now.
They are key features on every street, certainly in Kensington, although there are some in Fairfield too, and at key locations, but now they are blighting the area and taunting us because we now have even fewer community hubs.
It makes perfect sense for these pubs to be given to the community to refurbish appropriately and move into, for their various group activities.
The challenge is to find a way to make it financially viable for both parties. The pub buildings are probably of low market value although they are probably on balance sheets at much higher figures, using historical data. It would create a loss on the Profit and Loss account to write them down. But if we could persuade breweries to take this hit, and consider instead the benefits to cash-flow of not having to pay utilities or rates or insurance on the pubs, it could make sense for them to just hand them over. I certainly don't see any of these pubs being sold on the open market and I dont see a rush of new tenants willing to take on a failed pub either. I don't know how much business rates a pub pays, can anyone let me know? A guestimate will do for these Kensington pubs.
If the brewery handed a pub over to a community group, permanently, that group could then apply for funding for refurbishment work to make it fit for purpose, capital funding is much easier to get than revenue funding.
The challenge would be for the group in its new premises to become self-sustaining, because the rates, utilities, insurances and repairs - all those things the breweries are currently paying, would still have to be paid. I think perhaps at that point, an organisation in receipt of a free building and capital refurb funding would have to knuckle down to its own fundraising.
Obviously some would find it easier - a Polish club would be straightforward, presumably they would sell alcohol and would be guaranteed good custom (assuming the idea is popular within their community) so it would be a pub by any other name really.
The church could tithe its members.
But for some groups, they would need to rattle the collection tins, apply for grants, ask for sponsorship....
I am thinking seriously about approaching all the empty pub owners to ask them if they would be prepared to hand over their pubs to the community and then taking it from there. But I expect there are some obvious pitfalls I have failed to see, what do you think? Is this happening anywhere else?