A businessman’s fight against rural pub closures has just seen him buy his 10th Cumbrian pub in five years – one of them being in the North Lakes.
More than 2,000 pubs have closed in the UK last year, but entrepreneur Joshua Church, who owns The Wheatsheaf Inn in Embleton, is so convinced by their future that he is on a mission to snap them up.
He’s just bought his ninth and 10th pub in Cumbria with the purchase of The Highland Drove Inn, in Great Salkeld, Penrith, and The Cross Keys Inn, in Carleton Village – and he has not ruled out adding to his portfolio.
The 30-year-old Cambridge University student said: “Pubs are the focal point of community life. The pandemic and various lockdowns have highlighted the essential role they play in reducing isolation.
“They’re good for the economy too but the key is finding the right person to run them.”
Joshua’s mother Elaine has lived in Cumbria since 2007 and his father Nathan worked as a gamekeeper in Kirkoswald in the 1970s.
The family became property investors in the 1980s and added their first pub – The Cock & Bull, in Cockermouth – five years ago after identifying a gap in the market.
Joshua said: “To run a pub in the UK, you will most likely need to purchase a pub or become a tied house, renting from a brewery. Being able to rent a free house is harder to come by.
“Many people don’t have substantial money needed to purchase a free house pub for themselves and if you rent a pub from a brewery, you’re tied to what beers you can sell, making beer significantly more expensive to purchase, limiting profits and incentives.
“In my opinion, this hugely restricts the ability for young, innovative and ambitious people to enter the industry and make their mark.
“The other big reason for pub closures across the UK is that pubco’s, breweries, banks and pension funds poured capital into the pub markets when they were flavour of the month.
“This inflates values and rents to levels that are unsustainable long-term.
“For example, The Ship at Dovenby became the first pub in Cumbria to sell for £1m to a pub chain in 2004.
“The very same pubs that were being sold and valued at excessive amounts in the early 2000s started to re-enter the market on the down-cycle at much cheaper pricing, making them not only feasible but a better investment than many other assets.
“Our model is simple. We find a pub that is discounted and then we find the person who is best able to run it.
“The person may not have a penny to their name but if they are the right person then we are delighted to make it happen for them.
“We have nothing to do with running the pub because we’re better on this side of the bar.”
“Whilst it is inevitable that COVID will cause some further pub closures, we believe the market is turning to an upwards cycle and the lockdowns have confirmed they’re an integral part of community life.”
“The tenant will go in at no cost or premium and then enjoy an initial rent-free period, normally three months, and the rent then steps up over time to a sustainable level that both sides are happy with.
“This initial low rent period allows the occupier to build their cash reserves which makes them a sustainable business that can weather the storms of quieter months such as January. They are also able to reinvest in the business to grow it and make it their own.
“Our tenants typically sign a 15-year lease. Unlike many breweries and pubcos that insist on seeing the occupier’s turnover and profits, we go the opposite way, we make it very clear that we do not want to know what our tenants make.”
The other pubs in his Cumbrian portfolio are: The Huntsman in Cockermouth; The Ship in Dovenby; The Wheatsheaf Inn in Embleton; Little Arms in Cleator; The Grey Goat in Baggrow; Tithe Barn in Cockermouth (now called Tithe Barn Hotel and Tithe Tap); and The Old Mill Inn in Dearham.
Joshua said he was very excited by the two Penrith pubs he’d acquired.
“The Highland Drove Inn, in Great Salkeld, is a destination pub and is a massive building with real quality furnishings while The Cross Keys Inn is already the focal point of Carleton Village and that’s only going to grow with the building of hundreds of new homes,” he said.
Joshua and his family also own a pub on the Wirral and Liverpool and in South Wales.
When he’s not buying pubs Joshua, who is engaged to fiancée Amy Holliday, is doing a masters at the University of Cambridge in real estate but admits that Cumbria is never far from his thoughts.
“My dissertation is on rural pubs in Cumbria and their closures and the impact on house prices,” he said. “It’s a subject I’m passionate about.”