Dave Richardson, editor of the Campaign for Real Ale magazine The Oxford Drinker, says Oxfordshire has become a hotspot for community-owned pubs

AS YOU stand in the enormous garden of the Red Lion pub in Northmoor, you can see why it attracted interest from developers when put up for sale by brewer Greene King last year.

The pub is an attractive old building in itself, but if planning permission had been granted a dozen homes could have been built on this site.

It did not happen, much to the joy of villagers in this peaceful corner of West Oxfordshire – and the Red Lion is now one of five community-owned pubs in the county.

According to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) there are about 60 such pubs around the UK, and no single county has more than Oxfordshire.

By last year the Red Lion had become a good example of a pernicious trend that the Government is at last addressing in legislation making its way through Parliament, to give the tenants of breweries and pub-owning companies a fairer deal.

When a pub is struggling, they may increase the rent; when a pub does well, the rent may go up too.

Greene King put the Red Lion up for sale after failing to find a new tenant, and it was set to join the list of pub closures now running at 31 a week, according to Camra.

Graham Shelton, the chairman of Northmoor Parish Council and a local businessman, headed a community buyout, leading to the reopening of the pub this May as a free house.

Selling whatever beer it chooses, it is now doing very well under new tenants Ian Neale and Lisa Lyne, who are developing a reputation for fine food.

“We didn’t know what we were doing when we started, but the pub is giving the 90 shareholders a five per cent return on their investment – where else could you get that these days?” said Mr Shelton.

“We are now fully subscribed, with shareholdings from £250 up to £100,000, and nearly all are from Northmoor and nearby villages.”

The Red Lion does not intend to rest on its laurels. It could soon be acting as a micro-bakery, micro-shop and pick-up point for courier deliveries, and plans to grow fruit and vegetables and rear chickens now the garden is safe from the threat of disappearing under housing.

The idea of a community running its own pub might appear daunting, but help and advice are available from the Plunkett Foundation, a national rural support body, based in Woodstock; the Oxfordshire Rural Community Council, based at Worton, just outside Cassington; from Camra; and from Pub is the Hub, a not-for-profit body dedicated to offering advice and support to licensees and rural pubs.

Different models of community ownership are available, with the Red Lion being an ordinary limited company, but the Plunkett Foundation has helped “one member, one vote” co-operatives, which run 27 pubs around the UK, including the Seven Stars at Marsh Baldon and the Bull Inn at Great Milton.

It has also published a report, Co-operative Pubs 2014 — A Better Form of Business, and also operates an advice line and dedicated website offering expert advice at pubs.coop

“The Localism Act means pubs can be designated as Assets of Community Value, but there are still many barriers and significant capital is required,” said Plunkett’s head of development and policy, Mike Perry.

Witney Gazette:

The Red Lion in 2003, when it was owned by brewer Greene King

“We can provide mentors and in-depth business support, and although we do not fund purchases ourselves, we can offer limited funding for start-ups.

“Rural Oxfordshire has the second highest number of community-owned shops in the UK, and is a hotspot for community share issues as well as pubs. Pubs are often the only place for a rural community to interact, and can help people of all ages affected by isolation.”

Oxfordshire Rural Community Council’s guide Saving the Village Pub gives advice on what to do if a pub is threatened with closure.

Its community buildings and shops adviser, Lynne Newin, says it has helped the Seven Stars, the Bull Inn and the Plough at Great Haseley.

“The pub is not just a place to drink and have a meal, as it could also act as a shop and a library,” she said.

“It could be the last business left in a village, but people must think through a potential buyout, including why a pub is facing closure. It’s important to involve the whole community.”

Another three pubs in Oxfordshire could soon become community-owned, and possibly emulate the success of the Red Lion, where the campaign to save it gathered strength from a survey of local residents carried out before it was threatened with closure.

“The survey showed people really wanted their pub, and when we held our first meeting we had 30 pledges of support, with £100,000 promised there and then,” said Mr Shelton.

“I don’t think any of our 90 shareholders is doing it for the money, but to own a piece of English community life.”