It is widely accepted that rural pubs play an important part in village communities, inspiring a sense of belonging and ownership that is possibly unique to this traditional meeting place. The addition of several hundred houses in Ash could further isolate villagers from one another if the bulk of socialising and dining is carried out in the bigger towns, so a reclaimed “Chequer Inn” could be seen as a staunch protector of our village identity and the parish would benefit from retaining it as a hub for community gatherings and activities.
At the beginning of 2015 the Parish Council submitted an ‘Asset of Community Value’ to Dover District Council. This would have been the first step in ensuring that the beautiful Grade II listed building remained a pub and was protected from redevelopment in the conservation area. However, the developer successfully appealed and then submitted plans to change the use of the pub to a residential dwelling including a garage with full internal and external alterations to the historic building. The development proposed will mummify the building; preserving its body, but removing its spirit.
Spurred on by this, a second ‘ACV’ was submitted just before Christmas by a steering group led by Matthew Titterton. A meeting was held in the Church in mid-December, where 130 villagers attended to air their views and suggest what they would like to see in a revamped “Chequer Inn.” A pub restaurant providing locally sourced food and locally brewed ales was the main ambition, that would also provide a community focus for many of the village’s clubs and groups in an establishment that could provide a warm and welcoming environment. This information was put into a business plan to be assessed by Council officers. Following this meeting, around 100 objections were lodged on the DDC website, which forced the Council to discuss the matter at an open planning meeting.
On the Sunday following the meeting, a demonstration with 150 villagers was held outside the pub to raise the public profile, with children holding up big letters spelling out ‘Save The Chequer Inn’ and many adults with banners and posters! Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet, and an official from CAMRA were among the protesters who were filmed and photographed for the local press. Craig told Media “There are a lot of people very keen for this pub to be up and running and I would encourage Dover Council to accept the ACV application. Pubs are the heart of our community and this historic pub should not be lost.”
The Planning Officer’s report was released ahead of the DDC Planning Meeting that was scheduled for 21st January, and – as expected – was in favour of the development. However, it was very one sided, and the group wanted the Councillors to hear more of the village’s side of the story. To win at the hearing, an alternative planning report had to be provided to give the Councillors evidence that the Planning Officer’s version was flawed.
Thanks to local campaigner and actor Neil Stuke’s contacts within in the legal world, we had over ten thousand pounds of advice, pro bono, from one of the top planning QCs in the UK. He said the Planning Officer’s report was full of holes and there was a very strong case against change of use. He offered a discounted rate of £1750 + VAT (half his usual daily rate) in order to produce an alternative document. In a meeting in the Church on 18th January, over 100 villagers raised the money to pay for the QC’s report, illustrating the passion that the community has for this project.
Every Councillor at Dover District Council received a series of emails from the campaign in the week that the Planning Meeting was due to take place. A 50 page report opposing the proposed development was sent with nearly 1000 pages of appendices. As a result of this report, the “Chequer Inn” was taken off the agenda for January’s Planning Meeting. This was a wonderful victory and meant that the Councillors were taking the time to read everything through thoroughly. A new report was then written up by the Planning Officer for the following months meeting.
Since then Dover District Council announced that the “Chequer Inn” has been listed again as an Asset of Community Value. Another victory for the group!
On 25th February 2016 we won our battle. Plans to turn the 15th century pub into a house were refused by a planning committee at Dover District Council, where around 60 residents turned out to show their support with banners and posters. The committee unanimously voted against the Planning Officer’s advice and saved the pub from change of use after seeing the large support it had from our community.
Matthew Titterton spoke for 6 minutes on why Dover District Council should reject the application, followed by Sue Chandler, chairman of Dover District Council and Ash resident, who highlighted the important part the pub has to play in the community. The committee said that they did not believe the pub had been marketed properly and that this was why it was not taken up after the last landlords ran it in late 2013 to early 2014.
Cllr Bill Gardner admitted that he had changed his mind during the course of the meeting. He said that he had come to the council offices with the opinion of “use it or lose it” but concluded: “I think the people of Ash should be given an opportunity to see if it could work.” Cllr Andrew Richardson echoed this, saying: “It is clear that this pub is valued, I can see that from the level of support in the village. We need to find another way to give the village another chance to make this work.”
On 1st March 2016 DDC received notice from the owners of their intention to sell the property. We are delighted with the news and the Asset of Community Value status allows us to slow down the sale process so that we can spend more time as a community to work out the next step. The owners have now passed all communications over to a solicitor. Ash Parish Council triggered the moratorium period until 1st September, allowing a new community group “ChequerMates” to raise the funds and put forward a proposal to the owner.
At another Public Meeting in June 2016 to inform interested villagers of the progress of the Chequermates group towards purchasing the Chequer Inn, an inspirational address by Russ Timpson, who runs his own business, challenged the audience to contribute to the concept of owning a part of their community pub. He had referred to the past accounts of the last landlord who had been able to run the pub at a good profit. With the help of an accountant he had been able to prepare a business plan. He suggested that a small profit could be expected in the second year of trading (once refurbishment of the kitchen allows food sales) and improvement thereafter.
At this well attended meeting a call for pledges to raise the funds to buy the inn produced an encouraging response. Other sources of funding were discussed such as loans or grants from charities and businesses. Offers of support of other kinds included business management, web design, IT support, legal support, soft furnishings, gardening, building skills as well as from several people with experience in the pub trade. After the meeting we were contacted by the Reverend David Moulden who offered to Chair the steering group.
To help with the initial campaign, a £2500 bursary for our admin costs during the fundraising process was awarded by The Plunkett Foundation. Our group spent a lot of time form filling to get government grants and funding, and setting up bank accounts set up, as well as collecting pledges from the community to assist in gaining evidence of support from the village. Publicity really started to take off with BBC’s The One show running a special feature about us and community pubs, as well as local news, radio and TV. Other fundraising nights in the village were a huge success and morale was heavily boosted. The need for a community space in the village became more and more apparent.
In March 2017, after becoming fully registered with the FCA, our share scheme was launched assisted by the Plunkett Foundation after we republished our Business Plan. We were told by the owners solicitor that the guide price was £340,000 (over £150,000 more than it was purchased for) and sadly for us, that no viewings would be taking place on the property before the end of our moratorium period, which sadly delayed our efforts as we couldn’t access the condition of the building by our commercial surveyors to assist in further fundraising if needed. Over the next 6 months offers were made to purchase the pub by our team, but were sadly refused, and The Chequer Inn remained unsold.
By June 2017, a massive £212,000 was raised through selling shares at £100 each. An amazing amount for a community the size of Ash. Applications for shares came from around the world including Alaska, Australia, North Carolina, Scotland and Yorkshire. Our project then received a £50,000 grant and a £50,000 loan – jointly funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government The Power to Change Trust delivered by the Plunkett Foundation. Executive director James Alcock said: “We’re so pleased to be able to support The Chequer Inn who are working hard to make sure their community can benefit from everything that having a thriving local pub brings. “Pubs that are owned and run by the community are so much more than a place to buy a drink; they provide important social spaces and services for local people, and are central to their community’s sense of place and identity.”
In December 2017, the Vendor said we need to offer above our previous current offer to £310,000 which will secure access but no reduction if survey shows extent of repairs. After final Investors jumped on board, our members voted and agreed to the terms and £400,000 was raised in total to cover the purchase and refurbishment.
In April 2018, with the assistance of solicitors, the sale was finally completed and we finally received the keys. All the hard work paid off! Work now begins on the redesign of the pub, extensive refurbishment, and the search for a suitable tenant before the pub reopens later this year.