Cocking Village Hall was packed for a public meeting to launch the Blue Bell Community Hub on 18 January. Only a few months after the proposal to save the pub began the project is now a reality, with village-wide support making it possible.
The Community Hub’s president, renowned sculptor Philip Jackson who lives in the village, described how a hostelry at this entry point through the Downs had existed at least since 1635. After it closed recently and there was a possibility that the pub would go, the village got together to save it, and plan, when the current post master retires, to incorporate the Post Office and shop business from across the road. “We realised we could become just a collection of houses which is not what we want; it would have lost its community feel.”
The proposed hub will incorporate the village pub, a restaurant and café, bed and breakfast, a shop, in due course the Post Office, and a wealth of activities based at the hub, ensuring it can support the village and its residents for years to come. A commercial tenant will run the businesses at the hub and there are also likely to be volunteer opportunities.
Cocking is a stop-off point for people on their way to and from Chichester and Midhurst and sits at the heart of the South Downs National Park (SDNP), where it has long welcomed walkers and cyclists using the nearby South Downs Way. The Blue Bell Community Hub will be part of the National Park’s Shared Identity Scheme for those within its boundary, and the first community hub in its area.
Ideas from residents for services the hub could provide include: a meeting place for groups and older people, bike repairs, an information point for surrounding attractions, free Wi-Fi, skittles, pub quizzes and themed nights, a cash machine, and pop-up health services.
The hub will work alongside local businesses such as the village hall, Manor Farm Cocking, and the Moonlight Cottage B&B & Chicken Shed Café, as well as larger organisations such as English Woodlands Timber, Goodwood, the Weald & Downland Living Museum, West Dean College & Estate and the Cowdray Estate.
Villagers heard how the hub will be owned through a Community Benefit Society, a not-for-profit organisation, registered with the Financial Conduct Authority. Financing will be achieved through a combination of grants from public bodies, private loans and donations, a village share offer scheme, fund raising activities, and a bank loan.
A fully costed business plan has been put together by the steering committee led by Peter Gibbon and Nico Dekker. £470,000 has to be raised to buy the pub from the current owners who have agreed the sale, and £167,000 for cash flow and to refurbish it ready for opening. A quarter of that is already pledged and another quarter expected to be available via grants.
The project is receiving help and advice from The Plunkett Foundation, which supports rural communities through democratically-run enterprises and is expected to provide grant funding. They have already helped 85 community pub projects (and many more community shops), with a 100% success rate, and another 153 are in the pipeline.
Mark McTaggart from the foundation said: “You’re not alone – people have done it successfully before, and the numbers of you here in the village hall is an excellent sign. There is great potential here on the edge of the South Downs: with your support the hub could be a success, I think you can do it”.
Next stages include launching the shares offer in February; acquiring the property with completion expected in April; refurbishment, selection of the tenant and activities development, and three more public meetings in April, May and July, with a grand opening in August.
With many villagers having to stand at the packed meeting, most were very positive about the project, with one or two raising questions about long-term sustainability and issues such as parking and how the proposed commercial tenancy would work. The steering group’s presentations were backed up with information sheets containing answers to 50 frequently-asked-questions and initial ideas about the pub layout.
Community Hub steering group chairman Peter Gibbon said: “We are delighted with such a good turnout to the launch of this project. With the support of the South Downs National Park and the Plunkett Foundation everything is now in place to go forward and raise the remaining funds and provide a service for the village of which we can be proud.”
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