[photo: Directors of Saffron Walden Community Pub inspect their new purchase. Chair Dave Kenny in doorway.]
After a long journey with several delays the determined people of Saffron Walden in Essex now own the Railway Arms, an iconic pub that is part of the town’s industrial heritage.
It was over four years ago that local people started talking about saving the Railway Arms. It was clear that the pub company that owned it wanted to dispose of it and in January 2017 it was put up for sale. The campaigners managed to get it listed as an Asset of Community Value which put a six-month moratorium on the sale. They registered a community benefit society and held a share issue to raise investment to buy the pub. They made an offer in 2017 and a much higher one in 2018 but both were rejected. In April 2018 the owners took it off the market and started planning to redevelop the site.
After several applications for planning permission had been rejected the owners put the pub back on the market in December 2019. The community benefit society held a second share issue, partly to replace the investment that had been withdrawn when the previous attempts to buy had been unsuccessful. Eventually the owners accepted a new offer in July 2020, and on 12 October the Railway Arms finally reached community ownership.
The Chair of Saffron Walden Community Pub, Dave Kenny, is also an archaeologist. He said: “The Railway Arms is part of the industrial heritage of the town and it is also a lovely building. It is a large plot for a town pub with a garden, stables and other outbuildings that offer huge potential for community use. If we had not campaigned and eventually bought it, the site would probably have been redeveloped and all that history and community value would have been lost.”
The group received support from the More Than A Pub programme, which provides free advice and webinars, bursaries, grants and loans to communities seeking to buy their local, as well as those who are already trading. The programme is funded by Power to Change and is delivered by Plunkett Foundation working in partnership with Co-operative & Community Finance and the Key Fund.
Saffron Walden Community Pub now has 440 members who have invested a total of £227,000, which together with the grants and loans from More Than A Pub, mortgage finance from Triodos bank and £50,000 in share equity from the Community Share Booster programme, was enough to proceed with the purchase and renovation. The share offer is still open until 31 October – visit strap.org.uk for more information.
The joy in the community at ‘saving the Railway’ has been dampened by the announcement that Essex is now in Tier 2 (high) for anti-covid measures. The business plan for the Railway Arms, which included employing a manager, has been put on hold. Early preparation work is being done by volunteers and this is likely to continue for some time.
Dave Kenny said: “We did not want to rely on volunteers but we’ll need to do so over the coming weeks. It would be difficult to commit to new jobs at the moment. It’s difficult to say quite when the Railway Arms will open for business but when it does we will have the community on board, and we know people in the town will understand.”
Ian Rothwell, Investment Manager of Co-operative & Community Finance, said: “This is another example of a community saving its pub with a bit of help from the More Than A Pub programme. Being in an urban area, the Railway Arms is a bit different to many of the village communities that we have supported. The local community have demonstrated their support for the initiative by making the necessary investment, and I was impressed with the amount of voluntary effort that has got them this far. I’m confident that it will succeed in the long run despite the immediate difficulties caused by covid.”