The rise of community cooperative ownership in Wales: I’ll drink to that…
If ever evidence were needed that David Cameron’s claim that we are ‘all Thatcherites now’ is mendacious, the North Wales town of Wrexham supplies it in plentiful amounts.
The town, which saw more than its fair-share of the destructive legacy of Thatcher’s scorched-earth economics, has a football club that is owned by supporters, an iconic beer brand, Wrexham Lager, that has been brought back from the dead by a local family, and two pubs that have been rescued by community cooperatives.
Saith Seren, along with Ty’n y Capel in nearby Minera are two of six cooperatively run pubs across North Wales.
Saith Seren, previously the Seven Stars, is a Welsh language centre and pub in a Grade II listed 19th century building in the heart of Wrexham. Its owners claim it is the only cooperatively owned town centre drinking establishment in Britain.
The landmark venue was brought back to life in 2012 by a group of local people led by former Plaid Cymru councillor and long-time local activist, Marc Jones. The pub had been closed for six months and was up for sale when the community began their efforts to get it reopened.
Marc Jones explains the aim of the project was three-fold, one to reestablish what was previously a popular and thriving pub, secondly to establish a meeting place for Welsh language speakers and learners, and thirdly to create a long-lasting legacy from the National Eisteddfodd which was held in Wrexham in 2011.
The group had initially planned to purchase the building but were unable to raise the money in time as the brewery wanted a quick sale, instead they entered into partnership with a housing association who now lease the property to the cooperative.
The project quickly drew 80 investors and now has around 100 says Marc Jones: “Obviously most investors are local but we’ve also got people throughout Wales and England one guy from as far away as San Francisco put in money.
“It was very much a sense of let’s see if this works out. I think there was a lot of skepticism I’ll be honest with you, I think a lot of people thought this will never work.”
But it has worked. The pub has been in existence now for 18 months and appears to be thriving when, as Mr Jones points out, other pubs in the area have fallen on hard times and have gone out of business.
Mr Jones is clear that the value of community ownership is that it steps in when the market fails communities – robbing them of valuable assets: “The point really is that private ownership had failed, it failed this pub.
“The model that the big multinational pub owning chains have adopted just doesn’t work in these communities. And the minute any landlord makes a success of his pub they bump up the rent.”
“They insist you buy their beer or a certain beer and they’ve got you over a barrel, literally.”
Marc Jones is almost evangelical about the community-cooperative model pointing out that the pub, not having received any public money, and free from the grip of multinational breweries is beholden to no one.
The Saith Seren model means the pub can buy from community-minded real ale brewers and can work its way through the fifty-plus micro breweries that there are in Wales.
The cooperative had help and advice from the Wales Co-operative Centre, the largest co-operative development agency in the UK.
Glenn Bowen, Programme Director for Enterprise at the agency, which was established in 1982 by the Wales TUC and others who sought to emulate the success of the Mondragon region of Spain, is clear about the importance of community led ventures, particularly in Wales: “Many of Wales’s communities, urban and rural alike, do not have a local shop or pub, and lack local childcare, learning opportunities and community facilities.”
“At the same time, many communities have a severe shortage of jobs. Yet what almost all localities in Wales have in abundance is a common purpose and community spirit – it is a hallmark of Wales’s society.”
“The community co-operative model is an ideal way to harness that energy and commitment to meet the community’s needs.”
At a time when government is increasingly pushing towards private investment in previously public owned ventures, such as the Royal Mail, there has been a 10% increase in UK co-operative enterprises over the past two years.
They now total a combined membership of approximately 13.5m people.
“We have seen an increase in communities coming together to deliver services that were once delivered by the private sector,” Glenn Bowen continues.
“Many of these have their origin in providing vital services and facilities, often prompted by the threat of closure of a much-needed shop, pub or community centre.”
In Wrexham the pub and Welsh centre at Saith Seren are now up and running and prospering. The community cooperative is also considering expanding the ownership model to other town centre buildings, including a disused cinema.
Despite the financial crisis it would appear community ownership in Wales is thriving, something Marc Jones has experienced first-hand: “If our pub can survive a recession it will thrive in better times.
“You see multinationals moving away from certain areas and communities all the time. The communities are still there. They still need to buy things, they still need to eat and drink.
“That’s why this is a business model that’s time has come.”Tagged in: beer, community, cooperative, pubs, wales, welsh language, welsh politics
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