Shops and pubs are not the only examples of community enterprises: Totnes Cinema in Devon is a social enterprise providing a cultural focal point in a town that would be too small to support a cinema owned by one of the big chains. Such initiatives are not, of course, limited to Britain. In 2019, Jean-Pierre Desmoulins, the 73-year-old mayor of Saintines, a village in northern France, addressed the closure of the local bakery by turning a corner of the town hall into a bread shop and post office: ‘[Desmoulins] has turned bread into a public service, and the little town hall into a social hub. ‘It creates a meeting place, a point of social contact’, he says.
Sadly, the good news does not tell the whole story. To put the numbers in context, the 120 existing community pubs are a mere drop in the ocean compared to those that have closed: between 2008 and 2018, the UK lost more than a quarter of its 50,000 pubs. Given the success of the community-owned pubs, shops, cafés and cinemas that have been started, and their popularity with local people, why are they not on every high street?
One obstacle to community ownership and governance is the sheer amount of red tape and organisation that is needed to get something like this off the ground, even though the UK government has worked with the Financial Conduct Authority to simplify the process and the costs.
There are many legal vehicles available to people wanting to combine their efforts in a social venture, but the most popular is the Community Benefit Societies model, which was made possible by the 2014 Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act. Nearly half of Britain’s community pubs are registered as CBEs, and each has an average of 220 members. CBEs formalise the process of crowdfunding for non-profits and enshrine in law principles such as asset-locking, which means that any capital that is transferred out of the company must either be replaced by new capital or passed to another community organisation to which asset-locking applies.
This model works relatively well when the participants are happy to use a one-size-fits-all structure, but there is little room for variation. Additionally, the bookkeeping requirements can be onerous, with the management committee required to keep the details (both physical and electronic addresses) of participants updated and also to keep duplicate copies of the enterprise’s records so that they can be submitted to the relevant government bodies. The services of solicitors and accountants are often required. The management committee personally shoulder the burden of deciding whether the business is sufficiently solvent for departing members to be able to withdraw equity, and for deciding how profits should be spent, either on reinvestment or by supporting other local charitable initiatives. Many decisions are taken at an annual general meeting, which is usually held in person.