Community ownership has enabled a number of high-profile businesses in Bath to survive...but can they thrive?
Words by Eddie Plucknett
Illustration by Abbey Withington
Community-owned businesses are on the rise in the UK and, instead of relying on banks, they have been successful in raising much-needed capital with the help of the public.
Community ownership is a compelling proposition because it provides those with a vested interest in the business the opportunity to take the strategic and operational steps needed to ensure financial stability and a platform for success.
On more than one occasion, residents in Bath have fought to save something that is important to them. Circus talks to three high-profile enterprises in the city that are now community owned, namely The Bell, which is something of an institution on Walcot Street; Komedia, a city centre entertainment venue famed for its music and comedy nights; and, finally, Bath City Football Club.
To help tell their story and explain the challenges ahead, we asked each of them four, on the face of it, straightforward questions:
Q1. Why was there the need for community ownership?
The Bell Ian Wood, The Bell’s popular landlord, decided to sell the pub after 24 years of ownership. Customers, employees, ex-employees, musicians and Bell devotees from around the globe were shocked and determined to do something to prevent the pub becoming part of a chain or gastropub. A meeting was called, and a core group decided to set about buying the pub for the community.
It was decided it would be an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS), a bona fide community group. This ensured the widest ownership possible so that no big fish could come along and change the nature of the business.
Komedia Komedia Bath was facing challenges including the upkeep of a historic building, residential pressures, and decreasing engagement with local people. The time had come to be bold and decisive about its future, and to offer it to the community of Bath to take control and truly weave it into the fabric of the city. Without recapitalisation and re-connecting with the community of Bath, Komedia would have been forced to prioritise only those events that are able to generate profit fast, such as club nights. This would have come at the expense of inclusivity and the cultural and artistic integrity of our programme, which is the antithesis of what Komedia was set-up to do.
Bath City FC The club has over £1m of debts to past and current directors who have lent money to keep it afloat. The problem with loans is that there comes a time when people want their money back, and one or two people calling in their debts brought the club to crunch-time.
If the Big Bath City Bid and community ownership hadn’t happened, the most likely outcome was that Twerton Park would have been sold and the team would be playing somewhere on the fringes of the city without a permanent home.
Q2. How much did you need to raise?
The Bell The six founding members of the society needed to raise approximately £925,000 in six weeks, as the owner was only prepared to give us a short amount of time before the pub went on the open market. We needed a minimum of £575,000 before we considered we’d be in a position to make an offer, having secured a bank loan for the balance.
We decided the minimum investment would be £500 and the maximum allowed under the scheme was £20,000. Every shareholder would have equal voting rights, so that more investment did not mean more influence.
The share offer was advertised nationally and internationally, with TV and radio coverage and a very active social media campaign. It was slow to start with, but the campaign gained momentum, and by the time the offer closed, we had raised nearly £800,000.
The endorsement of celebrities, such as Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant, was a significant factor in raising awareness of our campaign, but in the final analysis, the vast majority of the funds came from 536 loyal customers and current and former staff.
Komedia We set our fundraising target at £350,000 and actually managed to secure a total investment of £379,200 over the course of the 60-day Crowdfunder campaign. Most of these investments and donations came in during the very last days, hours and minutes of the campaign, so there were a few sleepless nights for the team to say the least!
Bath City FC We had two goes at completing the deal. The first time we weren’t able to bring enough money to the table to get the deal over the line. However, the second time things were much more collaborative with the incumbent board, we had additional finance from some supportive individuals and raised over £350,000 from the community share issue to take majority ownership. The Bid took just under two years to complete, so it’s fair to say there were plenty of ups and downs along the way.
Q3. Now that you are community-owned, what has changed?
The Bell You mean apart from having 504 owners – the current membership – with 504 opinions, when it used to have just one?
From the perspective of our customers, and particularly those customers who are also shareholders, we hope that nothing has changed! The biggest fear when the pub was up for sale in 2013 was that under a new owner, The Bell would lose its essential ‘Bellness’, and the major aim of the founding Board was to ensure that that didn’t happen. The problem lies in deciding on what actually constitutes Bellness, but five years into the adventure, the indications are that we’re getting it right most of the time.
Practically though, any business has to make some changes to survive, and when first proposed, those changes are unlikely to meet with the approval of all 504 owners. The main challenge for the Board is to communicate well on any need for change and ensure as much agreement as possible from our members. This can mean it takes time to make decisions, and the more important they are, the longer it is likely to take. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Komedia Through the crowdfunding campaign, we have been able to strengthen ties with the local community and charity organisations, making programming decisions based on their societal rather purely commercial value. This has brought a new vibrancy to Komedia Bath and has helped us to share the venue with lots of new and different audiences.
To top it all off, since the campaign, we’ve had some of the best months of trading in our history.
Bath City FC On and off the pitch the club feels much more professional and vibrant. Beforehand, there was no money to even buy stock for the club shop, so there was barely anything to sell. The uncertainty meant there was no confidence to invest in anything, so the whole club felt stagnant at best.
The new finance initially enabled us to make some much-needed investment in enhancing facilities for players and fans. We’ve been able to spend a bit more on players, and the new manager has introduced a more attractive style of play. Crucially, support for the club has increased, with nearly 3,000 more people attending matches last season compared with the year before.
Community ownership also means helping the community. We’ve donated over 60 hours of free room-hire to community groups, welcomed 300 school kids in to matches for free, run free holiday coaching sessions, hosted numerous public health initiatives on matchdays, become a collecting centre for Bath Foodbank, and raised thousands for our charity of the year Age UK.
And the big news is that we’re working towards a partial redevelopment of the ground. All the work we’ve done so far helps to stabilise the club and staunch the losses. But we still need something fundamental to clear the debts and put the club on a sustainable footing. The proceeds of the development will clear the debts, while the new facilities should give the club a sound business model right at the heart of the Twerton community.
Q4. What are the ongoing commitments of community ownership?
The Bell To continue running The Bell as a successful commercial enterprise without losing sight of the values that inspired our members to buy their shares in the first place.
Komedia The key aim of the campaign was to secure a permanent future for the venue in the city it now belongs to, responding to the wants and needs of the community, as well as bringing world-class entertainment to the city. Over the coming years we will continue to nurture and support new work and emerging creative talent, as well as hosting a wide-ranging live entertainment programme that is popular, broad and inclusive.
Bath City FC Commitments are substantial and it was a challenging transition from being a campaigning, fundraising group, to a more prosaic management and day-to-day process team. The key thing is to try to bring new people in to do specific roles so that everyone can take on manageable chunks. It’s difficult to recruit people to take on big roles as volunteers, but we’re starting to find our way.