A much-loved pub and music venue, The Bell Inn on the edge of Bath city centre is owned by some 675 of its customers, fans and workers.
Serving drinks since 1750, the pub has become a cultural institution in the city renowned for its real ales, quality live music and creative, bohemian clientele.
The Bell Inn was bought by the community in 2013 when a previous owner decided to put it up for sale. Fearing a chain would swoop in and change its unique character, a group of locals formed a co-operative society and put together a community share offer to buy the pub for themselves.
“We only had a few months to get the funds together,” recalls co-op member Tom Chapman, “but we managed to raise £780,000 in a five-week share offer. More than 500 people bought shares and the pub’s been running successfully ever since.”
The reason for buying the pub was to keep it the same, so the new co-operatively owned Bell Inn retained the same staff and manager – and a co-op board of members was set up to offer guidance to keep the business on track.
“We hold annual elections and three of the board have to retire every year – to give members a fair chance of being involved,” Tom explains. For him, the benefits of being member-owned are many. “Firstly, there’s the fact that people with shares in the pub are more likely to use it, bring friends and say: ‘I own a bit of this pub!’
“Then there’s also the feel-good factor from the rest of the local population. They come here, knowing they’re not pouring their money into a faceless corporate chain. They like that it’s run by local people for local people and the community.”
The Bell Inn managed to weather the Covid storm using its reserves to survive. To boost those reserves and re-invigorate membership, the co-op decided to launch a second community share offer in June 2021.
“We always planned to do an open share offer,” Tom explains. “Membership had changed over time. People move in and out of the area – and we want to keep ownership relevant to the community.”
To prepare for the share offer, Tom and his colleagues received free assistance from The Hive, the co-op business support programme delivered by Co-operatives UK in partnership with The Co-operative Bank. They were aided by Hive Provider and community shares practitioner Hilary Sudbury.
“She made sure that our share offer document was watertight and that it was of the highest possible standard. That was important for us to get the Community Share Standard Mark – an accreditation that reassures people who are buying into the offer that it’s all being done to the highest standards."
“Hilary has so much experience in these things, her input really helped. Even though we’d done this before, it was reassuring to have her involved. She ensured we got it 100% right.”
The Bell Inn soon reached its £100,00 share offer target and is still accepting applications from new members for a maximum £200 investment.
“We didn’t want big shareholders, but lots of little shareholders,” says Tom. “I want as many of our customers as possible to become members. Then they’ve got loyalty to the pub and can input into it. I’m a big believer in community pubs. It’s the only way a community can get the pub they want.
“The share offer also gave us a financial buffer after a challenging time, which was reassuring for us. And it was thanks to the help from The Hive that we’ve been successful.”