Alarm bells have been ringing over the threat posed by the Covid-19 lockdown and the looming recession to the UK pub sector.
Like the rest of the hospitality sector, pubs were forced to close their doors in March as the pandemic took hold. And – having lost several months’ trading – they face uncertainty as the country emerges from lockdown and the difficult logistics of operating while enforcing social distancing measures.
The sector was already under pressure, with reports in early 2019 that two pubs were closing every day. One response to this crisis was the rise of the community pub – where neighbourhoods and villages rallied to save their locals.
Backed by the More Than A Pub scheme – funded by independent trust Power to Change and delivered by Plunkett Foundation, the charitable
body for rural community businesses – locals would join together raise the funds to buy pubs facing redevelopment.
There are now 116 community pubs across the country – often based in villages or urban districts where there are no other amenities. As well as offering the usual amenities of a pub, they act as community hubs, offering services such as luncheon clubs, meals on wheels, dementia support and venues for the arts, sports clubs and other social activities.
This flexible, diverse approach to services gave community pubs a head start when it comes to staying in business during the Covid-19 crisis, says Plunkett. “They are bucking the national picture of closure during the lockdown by diversifying their services and helping those in need,” it adds.
Figures from Plunkett show 67% of community pubs surveyed have carried on trading during the pandemic. Many have laid on extra services for people in their local areas, ensuring that vulnerable people receive the supplies they need during lockdown.
By contrast, a survey from the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) of its members in the wider pub industry found that just 28% could offer food and drink takeaway, collection and deliveries – and 72% could not.
Meanwhile, community pubs have diversified into new support functions including delivery of prescriptions, groceries, hot food and takeaways.
“In many cases,” says Plunkett, “community pubs have been building on their established reputations as local hubs by offering services to support the wellbeing of residents, with new innovations such as telephone helplines for those suffering from isolation.
“Community pubs have also been supporting their tenants by providing reduced rents or rent holidays and keeping staff employed where possible, and furloughing them where not.”
Hannah Barrett, senior project manager at Plunkett, said: “We are urging people to support their local community pubs today, in whatever way they can – and to keep on supporting them when lockdown is lifted.
“Community pubs have been working hard to remain the beating heart of communities, offering services which have been much needed and
greatly relied upon during the Covid-19 crisis. Through their activities they are not only keeping communities in contact with each other and supplied with products and services they need, they have also been keeping people employed during these extremely difficult times.
“These pubs have been leading the way and showing by example that community pubs are more than just pubs, they are diverse hubs of community involvement, even at a time of social distancing.”
Ms Barrett says community pubs have been implementing “enterprising, innovative and evolving ideas across the country, keeping people and communities safely connected”.
Despite this resourcefulness, these are lean times for community pubs, which often have little financial return for these initiatives and face the same pressures as the rest of the pub industry.
Molly Davis, head of communications at the BII, says: “It has been heartening to hear the many stories of community support, fundraising and charitable efforts from all types of pubs during lockdown.
“Pubs are so much more than just a place to get a drink and we will continue to support our members and the wider hospitality sector to ensure we have pubs to go back to.”
Tom Barton, programme manager at Power to Change, adds: “Community pubs are a lifeline for the communities they serve. We know community-
owned pubs are so much more than just pubs – and their response throughout this crisis is a testament to that.
“The community pub sector has stood out for its resourcefulness and its can-do approach to tackling the current situation. In some of these cases, it appears that local people have come to value their community pubs even more because of the amazing work they have been doing.”
During the pandemic, the More than a Pub programme has been making small grants of up to £2,000 available at short notice to help community pubs adjust to the pandemic. So far it has provided £43,000 worth of support, along with specialist advice.
Those receiving support include Antwerp Arms in Tottenham, north London which dates back to the 1850s and has been in community ownership since 2015.
In recent weeks the pub has been undertaking food collection, redistribution and delivery; and providing a hot meal service to 120 vulnerable people and key workers per week, across the diverse communities of Haringey – where 40% of children live in households in poverty.
Meanwhile, when the George and Dragon in Hudswell, North Yorkshire, was forced to close it offered its tenants a rent holiday for the duration of the crisis. But it still generates an income after expanding a small shop within the pub.
Martin Booth of the Hudswell Community Pub Ltd says: “This enables our tenant to continue to generate some income, support his suppliers and help the village through the crisis by supplying a wide range of goods so that most people would never need to leave the village.”
When the Pheasant in Neenton, Shropshire, closed on 20 March it began offering a takeaway and local delivery service for food the following day. The takeaway service brings in about 25% of normal revenue and provides people in the area access to quality food – and offers a lifeline to people who are self-isolating.