Trying to save the Robin Hood pub
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Observer, 2001 (The pub has since reopened)
The hand-painted sign still hangs outside, complete with a ditty: Ye Bowmen and ye Archers good, Come in and drink with Robin Hood.
But bowmen and archers will currently be disappointed. The last customers at the Robin Hood pub, in the Pennine community of Cragg Vale in west Yorkshire, drank down their pints more than a year ago and since then the door has stayed firmly shut.
The Robin Hood may yet live again, however, if a group of people in the Cragg Vale community are successful in their campaign to raise £200,000 or so in shares to purchase the premises. The company they have set up bears the name Merrymen Ltd, and a serious search is now underway to find enough merry men, and women, who are prepared to invest at least £2000 apiece in the embryonic new venture.
According to Mitch France, a local graphic designer who is one of the founders of the Merrymen, the permanent closure of the Robin would deprive the community of a much-loved facility. "Ive drunk in there for twenty years. We used to have a lot of live music its a great old pub," he says.
So far the signs are encouraging. A well-attended meeting in Cragg Vales former Sunday school earlier this month heard that the number of people supporting the reopening campaign had reached over eighty. There is already talk of a rejuvenated Robin Hood hosting a chess club, of a gardening club meeting there, of Irish music sessions on Saturday nights, of classical music events, of B&B facilities for tourists. The Merrymen also have firm ideas of what they dont want at the Robin: no piped music, and no gaming machines.
However, all their plans depend on finding the money. "We need £200,000 to buy the freehold and £10,000 to get the place up to scratch," Mitch France says. The group is preparing a letter for would-be investors, planned to be sent out later this month [July], but the campaigners take heart from a questionnaire they sent round earlier in the year. This went to all the 240 or so houses in the valley, got a response rate of almost 50%, and uncovered over 50 people prepared in principle to invest money.
The Merrymen are careful not to promise large returns to shareholders, but do claim to have done their homework. The plan is to lease the pub to a tenant landlord, who would run the pub commercially and pay rent to the company. This in turn could be passed to investors. "Hopefully, 4_ %-5% could be paid as a dividend," Mitch France says.
An increasing number of rural pubs are under threat of closure, with foot and mouth only the latest threat to their viability. The Merrymen of Cragg Vale are adopting a model of community self-help which could help stem the trend, and which has already been successful elsewhere. When The Kings, the last pub in the Cambridgeshire village of Reach closed in 1998, for example, a local campaign Reach for a Pint found 48 people prepared together to chip in £160,000 to buy the pub. It reopened in October 1999 with a new name, the Dykes End, and has since operated as a successful pub and restaurant. Those involved in Reach for a Pint are now advising the Merrymen on the practicalities.
There is, however, considerable potential for pratfalls for unwary community groups. The Merrymen found out just in the nick of time that an open public invitation to buy shares risked falling foul of legislation on share prospectuses. Having talked to the Financial Services Authority, the Robin Hoods campaigners have constituted themselves as a club, and will be soliciting investments only from people who are members of the club.
According to Malcolm Lynch, a solicitor at Leeds-based Wrigleys who specialises in advising charities and community enterprises, this move helpfully sidesteps many of the complex procedures laid down in the Companies Acts, the Financial Services Act, and in the separate Public Offers of Securities Regulations. He adds, however, that groups such as the Merrymen could also think carefully about whether a standard limited company is the most appropriate legal framework for their venture. The alternative is to use the less well-known Industrial and Provident Societies legislation, traditionally used by retail and other co-operatives. "I strongly favour the IPS structure - the conditions are a little easier to meet," he says.
Ian Strong, director of the Yorkshire Rural Community Council, sees growing interest in rural communities in clubbing together to save local amenities, including shops and petrol stations as well as pubs. His organisation is calling a one-day conference on community enterprises in October, looking at examples of good practice. By then the Merrymen of Cragg Vale will probably know whether or not they fall in that category. As Mitch France explains, the group has a self-imposed deadline of October 25th 2001 by which to raise the money they need. The Robin Hood will either be open for the Christmas trade this year or the lights will be off, probably for ever.
Postscript 2009: The Robin Hood is open for business
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