The Fox: the curious story of a local pub

The Fox Inn… heart of the community. Photograph: Tim Moat
29 Sep 2013 @ 10.13 pm
| Food & drink
The Fox Inn… heart of the community. Photograph: Tim Moat
The Fox Inn… heart of the community. Photograph: Tim Moat

tim-moat-headshotWhen his local closed, Tim Moat saw it as a chance to make it the heart of the community again. But then things took an unexpected twist…

Wednesday night meant quiz night in The Fox, Holgate Road, and the entire family’s schedule revolved around getting the evening meal out of the way so as not to miss it.

But this wasn’t a lads’ night out. My wife and a number of her friends and neighbours made up a formidable female-only pub quiz team and it’s fair to say it was a highlight of the week for them. Good atmosphere and good fun in friendly surroundings.

But no more.

Stuart and his wife Lynsey had, over five years, brought The Fox back from being a tired old boozer by working their socks off with regular events and beer and music festivals. On bonfire nights they hosted spectacular fireworks parties.

During the last World Cup, there was a big screen in the beer garden. There were barbecues for the local pre-school families. The Fox had regained its rightful place at the centre of the Holgate community.

It started to go wrong when, according to reliable sources, a revised rent was proposed by the pub’s owners, Punch Taverns, to the hardworking landlord and landlady.

They thought it must be a mistake. Sure, they had had a good year, but the new rent was unaffordably high. It wasn’t an error and there was no negotiation. It seemed as if their hard worked was being punished, not rewarded.

Unsurprisingly, faced with a refusal to reconsider, Stuart and Lynsey – with no small reluctance – moved on to the Cross Keys in Dringhouses. The Fox, you might say, went to ground. After an interim landlord’s very short stay, the doors were closed.

Hatching a plan

And that’s when neighbours, and I was among them, started talking.

We have all seen pubs shut and the reasons are many. Supermarket alcohol is cheap, there is less money around, you can smoke freely at home but you shiver while having a fag in a pub car park.

Pub companies, who grew their estates when money was easy to borrow, were caught like rabbits in headlights when the financial crisis meant facing hard fiscal facts.

Punch Taverns’ latest annual report publicly states they will dispose of about half of their 5,000 pubs in the next few years. They are heavily in debt and consolidation is a strategically important way out of the problem.

It was Chris Tippin’s idea to put together a cooperative and buy the freehold from Punch. Chris, a neighbour, and I have been pals for some time and between us we launched the local Neighbourhood Watch, six or seven years ago.

We both have a strong sense of community and love living in this part of York. Chris is involved with the Holgate Windmill – a community success story if ever there was one – and, somewhat less successfully, three years ago I ran a campaign to launch a free school in York.

So we talked and involved friends and neighbours, who had useful, professional contacts, and met with Stuart and Lynsey at their newly-refurbished Cross Keys and got the low-down on the figures from their time at The Fox. They were very interested and supportive of our ideas.

Everyone we mentioned it to, thought the prospects of a not-for-profit, community-led pub owned by its locals to secure its future to be a great idea. What’s not to like?

Golden example

We also spoke with Pete Kilbane from The Golden Ball in Bishophill, York’s first – and so far only – community pub. Their scenario was different in that locals had a landlord who wanted to retire but who wanted to dispose of their lease.

Nevertheless a big effort was made to galvanise the community to get behind the group and make it happen. Raising the money, Pete told us, was actually the easy part.

Prompted by ideas at The Golden Ball and from other people, community purchase, via a cooperative, seemed a sensible and viable solution. The pub, with its car park and beer garden, presented lots of options.

We could have a small post office within it during the daytime – there is no such facility close by. We could sell bacon sandwiches first thing of a morning to commuters and secondary school children – plenty of them walk past the busy junction.

And in the evening it could be a vibrant, safe and successful pub – who knows, we might even be able to sell the beer at a more reasonable price.

There could be mother and toddler sessions during the day, too. We could sell fresh bread, display pictures by local artists – the list grew easily.

Pub as the hub

We felt that by involving the community, by virtue of getting them to stump up for shares in order to pay the deposit, we could bring it back to the heart of where everything happens in a way a commercial operator never could. As long as costs were covered, we were in it as a service, not as a profit centre.

We could devise ways to reward shareholders and we would employ the right landlord and landlady to run it on a day-to-day basis, supported by a committed and enthusiastic steering group.

We didn’t get as far as working out how much shares would be, but we were determined they would be within the reach of as many people as we could. This was to be a pub for all, not just a few.

I spoke with Punch and was told the pub was not for sale, as suspected, but we were welcome to make an offer for it. I asked if we could send a valuer to inspect the fabric, as we knew there was work to be done, especially to the roof.

We were refused and told not to spend any money at this stage, just make an offer.

This is where the experts came in. Chris and I could take it so far, but we were out of our depth at putting a price on a pub – coming up with a figure that the owners would accept without having the chore of taking it to market. And yet not overpaying, as a lender couldn’t agree to negative equity.

In the end we received conflicting figures. I can’t reveal what they are because I don’t know who will be reading this and it might jeopardise any negotiations down the line.

Going public

Our next step was to go public. We knew there was some chatter but we didn’t know how far it had gone, and The Press was the obvious starting point. We had had conversations with CAMRA and had spoken to the council about listing the pub as an asset of community value – so word was starting to trickle out.

A couple of days after sending a press release to The Press, I contacted them to ask where we were with it. It transpired that their reporter had contacted Punch Taverns for comment – and had received an unexpected reply.

Punch were to invest £250,000 in The Fox, in the new year, we were told.

At a stroke this made us think again, and halted the campaign before it even started. If this was true, surely it solved all our problems?

The pub had since reopened, but evenings only and without any events. It was a tired old boozer again and people had already started to drift elsewhere. A cash injection of this magnitude, coupled with energetic new tenants would negate the need for our efforts – wouldn’t they?

But it was hard not to be cynical. Why wasn’t this decision made when they had successful operators in place? Why announce this as a response to talk of a possible community purchase?

Where’s the money coming from and will it mean yet another hike in an already unaffordable proposed rent? There was a whiff of Goliath brushing aside little David in this.

It’s easy to make promises to get people off your backs and buy time. Why would there be a campaign to buy a pub that wasn’t for sale and a pub that was about to have someone else’s money lavished upon it?

The end… or not?

At the end of the day, it’s Punch Taverns’ pub, not ours. I’d like to think people who go there are, in their own way, investors – investors of their time and money – but we have no real say, not really.

If it’s true, if Punch keep to their word, then this is a campaign that never was and how we will laugh about it, in years to come, probably down at The Fox in front of a nice pint and a roaring open fire.

But Chris and I will be keeping an eye on it. We await, with anticipation, the fleet of refurbishment tradesmen’s wagons sweeping in, and new signs proclaiming “under new management”. We will give them until into the new year – and if nothing happens we will be back on the case.

We’re not going anywhere. All along people in the know said this could be a long haul. We may not be at the end. We could be right at the beginning…