Campaigners in Stonesfield are concerned that the new owner of the village’s remaining pub could have plans to close it down and redevelop the site, despite a global campaign to save it.
A hugely successful high-profile community campaign raised £480,000 to buy The White Horse at its asking price with the intention of running it as a community pub, but last month it was announced that the community’s offer had been rejected.
Instead, the pub’s new owner is Jonathan Bowers, a property developer from Sussex, and campaigners are not convinced that their beloved pub will be saved.
Today, Steve Callaghan, Chair of the Stonesfield Community Pub campaign said: “Over the past few weeks, we have continued to try to gain a better understanding of the status of the sale of The White Horse and its future.
“The preferred bidder has been confirmed as Jonathan Bowers, who we were introduced to by the current owner in September. We have been told that he plans to run The White Horse as a pub. To be honest though, our own research shows that he has had a number of property development companies over the years and that seems to have been the main focus of his professional life.”
The #backthewhitehorse campaign grabbed the attention of international media when it was launched last year, and hit its first £100,000 milestone after only a week of fundraising following the launch of a community share sale, giving local people a unique opportunity to buy a stake in The White Horse and ensure that it was not sold to developers.
The news that the community pub offer had been rejected was extremely disappointing for the hundreds of people in Stonesfield and the surrounding area who supported the campaign, and over a thousand people in total who backed the campaign with generous donations. Despite that, campaigners remain committed to continue to do everything they can to ensure Stonesfield has a village pub.
The White Horse has been serving the local community since 1876 and is the last pub in the village having out-survived five others. At the beginning of last year, the pub was being run as a going concern but when the COVID-19 lockdown started in March, the tenants were forced to temporarily close the pub and, shortly after, gave up their tenancy. In July 2020 the current owner put it up for sale.
Once the broader village became aware of the planned sale of the pub, a small group of residents came together and formed a steering group to explore how best to secure its future. The community has been working with The Plunkett Foundation, based in Woodstock, who run the More than a Pub scheme and they have supported every stage of acquiring and setting up The White Horse as a community-owned pub.
The opportunity to buy shares in the community asset and own a stake in The White Horse was due to end on November 30, but with fundraising going so well, it was extended over the festive season enabling the campaign to raise enough cash to meet the asking price.
Steve added: “We have made a number of attempts to contact both the current owner to see if he would consider a higher offer and Mr Bowers to open a channel of communication about the pub’s future, but this has not had any positive effect so far.”
So now the campaigners and the community have to wait, but there could still be hope on the horizon.
Steve added: “Our professional adviser and the Plunkett Foundation tell us this situation is not unusual. Many other community groups have found themselves in similar circumstances. Community purchases are often long and drawn out, sometimes over years. Often, the enthusiasm of community campaigns has actually ignited new interest in pubs from commercial operators. However, their efforts to tap into local support tend to fail and after a few years the community finds itself again with an owner looking to convert the village pub into housing.”
Other community groups across the country have eventually been able to buy their locals by making sure they have funds ready to go when the opportunity arises.
Steve added: “The community groups that succeed are those that remain focused on their goal of saving the pub. They persist with their campaigns and retain the support and financial backing of their communities. Importantly, they have both the organisation in place and the funds available if and when a new opportunity to bid for the pub arises or they need to prove local support to oppose planning permission.”
There is still hope that Stonesfield’s remaining pub can be saved, but it could be a longer-term campaign.
Steve added: “As a committee, we are still committed to ensuring Stonesfield has a thriving pub at the heart of our community for the long-term. We want to be ready and able to buy the pub if we can or prove there is a viable community alternative if a change of use application is made.
“The backing we have received from everyone has been tremendous and we are very grateful to everyone for their contributions of time, effort and money. Now, as we wait to see what the future holds for The White Horse, we very much hope everyone will stick with us, over what might be an extended period, and we all look forward to the day when we can meet again and raise a glass together in our village pub.”
Keep up to date at https://www.backthewhitehorse.com