Appreciating the smaller things in life often means we need to think about the bigger commitments these entail. For the people of Toppesfield, North Essex, it all started with a collective desire – to preserve and enrich their local community by ensuring the survival of the village’s basic amenities. As part of a “little community with big ideas”, they believe the key to villages maintaining their character and soul is not the responsibility of government but rests in their own hands.
“Without churches, shops, post offices and pubs, villages can become isolated and derelict, helplessly converted to a location rather than place, a cluster of dwellings rather than a community.”
John Levick Toppesfield Community Pub Ltd
Glass half full
When Toppesfield’s village shop and post office closed suddenly in 2001, the community stepped in. Within a year, a new shop and post office was established, run entirely by volunteers on a not-for-profit basis. Inspired by the shop’s success, Toppesfield villagers had the confidence to intervene when their pub came under threat, raising funds and buying its freehold in December 2012. The Green Man in the centre of the village truly has become the heart of the community, putting new meaning to the term ‘public house’.
Spearheaded by a group of committed individuals who led the community buy-out, the whole village has been the architect of this project. Over 150 residents and friends have bought shares in Toppesfield Community Pub Ltd (TCP), raising over £150,000 to fund the purchase. While the majority of shareholders live locally, a substantial number live elsewhere in the UK and as far afield as Canada.
Additional finance was secured through a Triodos Bank loan and a substantial donation from a charity with local connections. From the organising committee and shareholders, to the local tradesmen committed to helping with the refurbishment plans, nearly everyone has been involved. It is an intoxicating story of community spirit.
The Plunkett Foundation, which helps rural communities through community ownership, provided guidance and consultation around creating the Industrial and Provident society model under which TCP has been established. John Levick of TCP’s organising committee says the cooperative model, in which shareholders have one vote irrespective of the size of their shareholding, has “galvanized the community to each ‘buy a brick'”.
The Green Man has been Toppesfield’s only pub for the last 20 years and so very nearly followed the fate of so many other rural pubs. Research from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) shows that in 2010 2,028 pubs ceased trading across Britain, amounting to roughly 40 pubs closing each week. Villagers acted to call last orders on Admiral Taverns, which previously owned the pub, in the nick of time. Only a few weeks after completion Admiral were bought out by a US private equity firm Cerberus, which plans to sell 100 of the pubs. “The last thing the village wanted was the development of four semi-executive homes,” says Levick.
The impact of a pub closing in a rural area can be catastrophic, perhaps even deadly. Pubs have for centuries played a vital role in the socialisation of the community. They provide a welcoming space for people to engage with one another, the lack of which can lead to isolation and loneliness.
Stability and continuity of services in rural areas has been on the decline for a number of years. The majority of rural settlements do not have a village shop. Trends are the same for post offices and pubs in the countryside. Public transport is dwindling and most people use their cars. The provision of these bastions of the community ensures that villages don’t become dormant. Village amenities are essential to its lifeblood and without churches, shops, post offices and pubs, villages can become isolated and derelict, helplessly converted to a location rather than place, a cluster of dwellings rather than a community.
A co-operative pub is where a significant part of a community comes together to form a co-operative to try and save and run their local. They encourage widespread community ownership at a level the majority of the community can afford. They are set up on a ‘one member, one vote’ basis, creating a democratic way of running a community business and ensuring everyone has a say in how they want their local pub to be run. A co-operative pub can distribute profits to the members, reinvest the profit in the business or distribute it for the benefit of the community.
photography BEC WINGRAVE words LUKE BOGUE
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