The toilets' cleanliness is the subject of debate and the staff take their time to serve you, so what makes the Bell Inn worth £781,000 of the community’s money? William Heath, entrepreneur and founder member of the Bell Inn Co-operative, told Congress it was a combination of music, atmosphere, and “the right thing to do.”
Mr Heath was part of a team of customers and staff that joined forces when the pub they loved went up for sale.
The Bell, in central Bath, was profitable, making £80,000 on turnover of £650,000 last year. There was an understanding that someone would buy it, and a fear that it would lose its character.
“Pubcos have homogenised the high street,” Mr Heath said. “The same model gets rolled out wherever you are in the country.
“Increasingly there’s a financial imperative. The staff are trained to be nice to you, but you feel it’s rather formulaic.”
The Bell was different, he told delegates. “The Bell is made by the staff who work there. They know their music. They’re mostly musicians. It’s the sheer eccentricity. It has colour, and that has value.”
Becoming a co-operative matched the spirit of the pub, he told Congress. “A co-operative was powerful shorthand for the right thing to do. It has a way of appealing to people’s will to own things.”
The co-operative set a funding target of £575,000 in six weeks. It offered a five per cent dividend, advertising the scheme as a tax efficient investment and a rational place to put savings.
The strategy was to build confidence early. “We decided we weren’t going to be a ramshackle co-op. We were going to be the best. The challenge was to get our act together fast enough.
“We raised £10,000 a day for the first four weeks, but we realised that wasn’t going to be enough.”
The pub’s sound engineer Steve Hilda came to the rescue, persuading famous contacts to back the campaign. The Stranglers, Michael Eavis, The Wurzels, Midge Ure, Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel were among them.
“Suddenly it was a national story,” Mr Heath said. “That turbocharged the effort. We realised we were going to do it.”
In fact the team overshot its target by nearly £200,000, raising £781,000. Investors include students, staff and musicians, and these new owners completed purchase of the Bell earlier this month.
“There are enormous opportunities for co-operative action,” said Mr Heath. “We can look after and save our cherished pubs. We don’t have to abandon them to pubcos and speculators.”