Two months ago, I wrote about how I was part of a small syndicate attempting to buy our local pub, which has now been closed for more than six months. I ended that piece with the words: “Watch this space”. Well, I’m afraid there’s still nothing to see. We made what we believe to be a respectable and realistic offer for the premises, but here we are today no further on, and The Fox continues to stand vacant, a community asset – it is listed as such in planning terms – that remains unable to serve its community.

It’s the only pub in an Oxfordshire village of 1,000 homes and, in addition to myself and a few friends, local residents keen to see The Fox thriving again had crowdfunded a considerable amount of money to put towards the cause. We have had a number of meetings to discuss everything from disabled access to the price of pizzas, from refitting the kitchen to quiz nights, but we are still waiting to hear what has become of the offer we made back in February.

Now it turns out that the pub’s current owners, a company called Stonegate and the biggest operator of licensed premises in the UK, have much more weighty issues to consider than the fate of a tiny boozer in the Cotswolds. The Fox is just one of the 4,400 pubs and bars Stonegate owns, and the company let it be known this week that there is “material uncertainty” about its ability to continue as a going concern because of the difficulties in servicing a debt mountain of £2.2bn.

This is the all-too-familiar story of a private company growing its business at rapid speed, funded by debt at a time of historically low interest rates, and then running into the headwinds of a less favourable economic climate. The hospitality sector, further disadvantaged by the effects of Covid, post-Brexit staff shortages, the rise in business rates, increasing costs and the way in which inflation has impinged on household budgets, has been particularly badly hit by this new commercial reality.

Domiciled in the Cayman Islands and ultimately owned by a UK private equity company which also co-owns Asda, Stonegate has been battered by this perfect storm, and they are by no means alone in the world of business, where all around them are debt-laden causalities of what Alan Greenspan, a former chairman of America’s Federal Reserve, memorably called “irrational exuberance”. Our privatised water companies, for example, are almost all in hock up to their elbows, with Thames Water being the most spectacular example, on the point of collapse under the weight of its £18bn debt pile.

Stonegate’s chief executive, David McDowall, said his company would “continue to support the Great British pub”, which makes the point that, no matter what the exigencies of high finance might be, there are real businesses in real places frequented by real people that depend on the likes of Stonegate getting their sums right.

It is another version of global capitalism’s pet notion, Trickle Down Theory. Only here the impact of highly motivated companies using other people’s money to fund their ambitions trickles down to affect the daily lives of ordinary consumers.

Which brings us right back to The Fox. Pubs such as this should probably be owned by local people who see them as a focal point of their community, not by conglomerates living and dying by the bottom line. Maybe it will still happen, but we are not holding our collective breath.

QOSHE - I'm trying to buy my local pub - but it's not going well - Simon Kelner
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I'm trying to buy my local pub - but it's not going well

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11.04.2024

Two months ago, I wrote about how I was part of a small syndicate attempting to buy our local pub, which has now been closed for more than six months. I ended that piece with the words: “Watch this space”. Well, I’m afraid there’s still nothing to see. We made what we believe to be a respectable and realistic offer for the premises, but here we are today no further on, and The Fox continues to stand vacant, a community asset – it is listed as such in planning terms – that remains unable to serve its community.

It’s the only pub in an Oxfordshire village of 1,000 homes and, in addition to myself and a few friends, local residents keen to see The Fox thriving again had crowdfunded a considerable amount of money to put towards the cause. We have had a number of meetings to discuss everything from disabled access to the price of pizzas,........

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