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How to save a pub - The story of the Duke of Marlborough

By Liam Coleman , 06-Dec-2016

Wahey: The local campaigners have had an offer to buy the pub accepted
Wahey: The local campaigners have had an offer to buy the pub accepted

In December 2014, the last pub in the Suffolk village of Somersham closed its doors. Less than two years later, the pub has been bought by the local community and is on the verge of reopening. Here’s the story of the Duke of Marlborough.

It’s sad but true. Figures from CAMRA show that 21 pubs in the UK close their doors every week. While some communities accept this reality, that was not the case for the village of Somersham in Suffolk.

When local junior doctor Sarah Caston heard that the owners of the last remaining pub in the village, the Duke of Marlborough, planned on selling the site and retiring, she tentatively organised a meeting in the village hall to see if local residents would be interested in saving the pub. 

“I think people were resigned to the pub closing and it took Sarah coming in saying: ‘We’re not going to let this happen’ to inspire people,” says Frances Brace, who was on the Save the Duke committee.

Community response

From a village with a population of 710, the village hall saw 150 people turn out to show their interest in saving the pub.

“I thought that if we got a handful of people then we wouldn’t take it forward, but from that response, we realised that the community really wanted the pub and that was the driving force,” Caston says.

“We compiled a questionnaire that we handed out to everyone, which had a few basic questions on how willing people would be to help and volunteer their time.

“Out of that, we had 14 volunteers join the committee. The next thing was for that group of us to meet up and have a committee meeting about a week later.”

The questionnaire had concluded that the residents of Somersham would be looking to buy the pub and have it run by community volunteers. Yet with an asking price of £300,000 for the Grade II-listed building, the committee knew from its first meeting that it would have a challenge on its hands to amass the money to buy the pub.

A parish grant

“We started off with a small grant from Somersham Parish Council, which was to help us get things set up. We first of all had to go through a lot of research at the beginning just to find all the different ways of doing it,” Caston says before explaining the financial options the committee had to investigate before it even started fundraising.

“The big decision was whether to be a private limited company or to be a not-for-profit community group.

“If you’re a private company, you might get people that are interested in making money and will invest larger sums because they want to see a return.

“Whereas with a community benefit society (CBS), you can’t ever see a big return on your profit or investment, but we thought we would probably get a lot more people involved and more community engagement. That’s why we went with that option in the end.”

They were right in thinking they would have community engagement. More than 200 people were willing to buy shares at a cost of £250.

Meanwhile, the owners of the pub, Roger and Hazel Mason, were being patient and co-operative, but were also keen to sell the pub.

“We have been very open with the owners and have widely publicised in the community how the fundraising is going,” Caston says.

“It took them a little while to get their heads around it, but I think that once they realised we were serious about raising the funds, they have been really co-operative.”

Despite local enthusiasm for buying shares, the Save the Duke group still found itself short of the total needed after the share scheme, a crowdfunding scheme and additional fundraising, including quizzes and
hop picking.

As a result, the group decided to pursue a seldom-used investment scheme set up by the Government in 2014 – the social investment tax relief scheme.

“There was a much higher minimum investment of £5,000 because you have to think about all the administration that goes into it. But from that money invested, people can get 30% of tax back on their loan,” Brace from the committee explains.

Caston adds: “The whole idea behind it is to encourage people to invest because you get such a good return on it – especially with interest rates being what they are at the moment. If you invest a £10,000 loan, at the end of the four years you will get that £10,000 back in full plus 30% from the tax man, so you’re effectively turning £10,000 into £13,000.

“It proved very attractive to investors because it’s low risk. We were about £50,000 short when we got to the end of the share issue, so the loan topped that off to what we needed to put in our offer.”

Offer accepted

With almost enough money raised to meet the owner’s asking price, the committee’s offer was accepted last month (October), 22 months after the pub closed its doors on Christmas Eve 2014.

However, the work is not quite done for the committee. “The biggest challenge to come is making it a successful and viable business,” Caston says.

“We need to become a place that people really want to go to. We have sent out a survey to about 1,400 households in our village and the surrounding villages just to see what kind of pub people want.”

An opening date in the first couple of months of 2017 is being mooted but before then, the group is looking for a manager and staff for the reopened pub. As Brace says: “It’s not done until it’s done”.

The Save the Duke team has ultimately come this far though and it will have high hopes of getting the doors of the pub open and keeping alive the last local in the community of Somersham.

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