Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Since I was re-elected as Mayor of the West Midlands just over a week ago, my diary has been full – and rightly so. There is much to be done.
Throughout the campaign, my message was always that I was ready to get straight back to work – to start the task of creating 100,000 jobs in the next two years, attracting new investment, and pressing on with our transport and housing plans. Thanks to detailed planning, we were ready to hit the ground running.
This week represents a major step towards recovery, as lockdown restrictions are eased further. For the owners of restaurants, cafes, gyms, fitness clubs, wedding venues, holiday lets, hotels, B&Bs and many other types of business this will be a big few days.
In this column, I want to focus on the sector whose fortunes have in some ways come to be seen as a barometer of recovery – pubs.
Pubs are, quite simply, part of the fabric of British life. That’s why, I believe, my visit to a Wolverhampton pub while on the campaign trail with the Prime Minister last month gathered so much interest. For many, the simple act of being able to go out for a pint has become shorthand for a return to normality.
I want to tell you about a scheme launched here to help protect local pubs, and also how I believe it reflects broader changes across society regarding much-loved community assets, and how the growing social economy can protect them.
The pandemic has had a brutal effect on our pubs. The facts are stark: over 2,500 pubs across the UK closed down in 2020 – an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year, and a figure which represents five per cent of all pubs in the country. While venues lucky enough to have outdoor space have been able to safely serve some customers since mid-April, this week’s easing of indoor restrictions has been long awaited.
Throughout the pandemic, I have battled for extra help for the hospitality industry, but the cruel reality is that at the time when we are most looking forward to visiting pubs again, there will be less of them to return to.
Of course, many pubs will make a strong recovery once lockdown is lifted, but some inevitably will not. That’s why we have launched a scheme to give people the chance to save those pubs by bringing them into community ownership.
The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has partnered with Plunkett Foundation, a community business charity, to help community groups establish action plans, build capacity, and raise the finance to take ownership of local pubs. The statistics show that it works, too. Community-owned pubs have a 99.3 per cent long-term survival rate.
An initial £10,000 investment will enable the Plunkett Foundation to support seven community pub groups – one from each of the boroughs that make up the WMCA. Those groups will get tailored business support and advice, online training, peer-to-peer networking and the chance to visit some of the 150 existing community-run pubs in the UK.
Crucially, saving these pubs will also help address issues of isolation, loneliness, wellbeing, work, and training as well as protecting much-loved community businesses and buildings.
But I also believe that this new scheme reflects a broader change across society, where communities are stepping forward to take responsibility for local assets they value.
Sometimes the people involved are volunteers who simply want to ensure that a cherished building looks at its best, sometimes they are organised groups with serious business plans to revitalise services and create jobs. The common factor is that communities across the West Midlands are realising they can help retain much-loved buildings and boost local civic pride.
There are all lots of examples. In Solihull, a group of dedicated volunteers looks after the town’s main railway station. In Sutton Coldfield, the Royal Town’s historic Town Hall has been transferred from Birmingham City Council to a locally-run Trust, who are bidding for funds to give it a new lease of life. In Erdington, a community association is putting together an ambitious funding bid to turn a boarded-up Victorian baths into a community hub. A determined community Trust is campaigning to turn Harborne’s old Royalty Cinema into a mixed-use commercial and community facility too.
The Government also recognises the huge potential of community ownership, with the £150 million Community Ownership Fund set to open in June.
All of this suggests that community spirit is alive and well. As the UK emerges from the pandemic, I believe we will need that social cohesion more than ever. And that means a crucial yet often overlooked part of local life, the Social Economy, will play a vital role in our recovery.
In 2019 I launched the Social Economy Taskforce with the ambition to double the size of the region’s Social Economy within ten years. As a sign of our belief in its importance, the WMCA has pledged to spend at least five per cent of its procurement budget on social enterprises, while we are also urging local businesses to consider them when buying goods or services.
Our new scheme to bring pubs into community ownership adds another important part to a tapestry of social enterprises, charities and organisations that often form the social safety net needed to support those impacted by the tough times we are living in.
If there has been one positive thing to come out of the pandemic, it has been the renewed sense of community spirit born of adversity. As they open their doors this week, publicans will be hoping to see that reflected by ringing tills. By including pubs in the burgeoning Social Economy, we will ensure more can keep their doors open – and we can all raise a glass to that.