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Stoke Ferry community group 'surprised' by pub owner's claim of inactivity

The Save The Blue Bell committee says it was "surprised" by the owner's claim of inactivity as members have remained in contact.

Chairman Stephen Ward said: "We were established in March this year and are registered as a Community Benefit Society as Stoke Ferry Community Enterprise Limited and will soon be able to launch a share offer to raise funds for the purchase and renovation of the Blue Bell.

"Offers of a loan from the current owner were conditional and time-limited and did not take account of the time a community group needs to get established and raise funds, especially against the background of Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings.

Residents of Stoke Ferry in the church grounds to try and get support toreopen the village’s last pub, the Blue Bell,. (41664273)
Residents of Stoke Ferry in the church grounds to try and get support toreopen the village’s last pub, the Blue Bell,. (41664273)

"Our recent grant from the Plunkett Foundation, an organisation which supports rural communities across the UK, reflects the progress we have made and their confidence in our work.

"We commissioned a full commercial structural survey of the Blue Bell, this took place on October 6th, with the knowledge of the owner. The report and valuation from this survey will enable us to finalise our business and fundraising plans."

Meanwhile, the group's financial advisor has hit back at the criticism.

Tom Ryves is the borough councillor for neighbouring ward Methwold and points to “significant new housing” planned for the village as reasons why the business plan and the group’s intentions are sound.

He says owner Oxygen 56 Ltd’s £220,000 price tag for the former pub is too much, its two offers of a £100,000 loan to the group came with unreasonable caveats and the firm has done nothing to nothing to improve the property.

“The facts are that the owner sought to sell the pub at too high a price and additionally sought to impose an undertaking on any buyer that the profits from any future sale be shared with him,” said Mr Ryves.

“We should note that the owner purchased the pub for £160,000 in July 2019 and is seeking to sell it, with no improvements for £225,000! There is, of course, no underlying justification for this sales price.”

Mr Ryves claims the owner has bought a number of pubs in England and appears to have a business model of marketing them briefly before applying for a change of use.

The Blue Bell closed in March 2018 and was bought by Oxygen 56 Ltd a little more than a year later.

“Within four months, the new owner applied for planning permission for change of use, claiming that it was not viable,” said Mr Ryves.

“This application was soundly rejected by the council, as was his appeal, which was firmly rejected in a decision published less than six weeks ago.”

He insists that it is financially viable to re-open the pub, a fact supported by the £2,500 grant from The Plunkett Foundation which paid for a survey carried out on Tuesday with a view to the group buying the property at a “fair market price”.

Mr Ryves said: “I would point out that Plunkett Foundation is quote rigorous in its grant allocation process, requiring not only a viable business plan but evidence of broad community support.”

He added: “I believe passionately in the future of the English pub - there are approximately 100 community purchased pubs and not a single one has ceased.

“It seems that the community-owned model is alive and kicking, and viable. Just visit The King’s Arms in Shouldham.”

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