The inside story of how people power saved popular Blue Bell landlord John Pybus

16 Nov 2018 @ 12.23 pm
| Business, Food & drink

When I wrote a YorkMix article in August on the dire situation facing the popular landlord of the Blue Bell John Pybus I don’t think anyone realised just what a backlash would be forthcoming from the great British public towards Punch Taverns – The PubCo.

Rather than negotiating with John a new and fair lease as a reward for significantly uplifting the popularity and profitability of this little gem down Fossgate, Punch Taverns chose to serve him with a Section 25 Notice – in other words eviction.

John was only exercising his legal right to ask for a fair market rent agreement and a chance to go free of tie from Punch Taverns, which would allow him to buy his beer direct from local breweries instead of paying 100% mark-ups on open market prices through being tied to buying from Punch.

The wonderful news is that John has just signed a new long term lease for the Blue Bell. It’s not the ideal solution he wanted but I think we’ll all agree that it’s far better than the alternative scenario that Punch first wanted – and indeed thought they’d get away with. They didn’t reckon with people power.

I’ll let him tell you about it in his own words…

‘The petition worked’

Thank you – you did it! writes John Pybus.

I am extremely happy to report that today I signed a new lease and will be the Landlord of The Blue Bell for another six years.

How it came about is a long story but the short version is: the petition worked, the pub is staying the same and thank you very much! If you’re after all the details, however, brew up and enjoy…

It’s now been 13 months since this tortuous process started and it has easily been the most stressful year of my life. Over a year ago I used new legislation in order to get a fair deal for rent and purchasing with the owners of the building.

Six months in, having explored every legal avenue and having exhausted all my funds, I gave up. Instead of keeping The Blue Bell sustainable for decades to come I was being evicted and a manager was being recruited for.

The only way to win this was a costly trip to court in which we would have been used as a national precedent case. The PubCo, with its enormous resources, threw everything it had at us.

I sat down on a Friday night and let the regulars know that The Blue Bell was to become a managed house. I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of people who have drank in the same little local pub for three, four, five (and in ‘Chef Geoff’s’ case, six) decades.

A shared defiance

Photograph: Richard McDougall
I told a few hundred people face to face in the first week. Then Dan Bean at the York Press and Nick Love at YorkMix ran great stories, and I then saw the same look on the individual faces of an entire community.

Card image cap

Why is a much-loved York landlord being forced from his pub and his home?

When Nick Love wrote an excellent explanation of how the PubCo was using its financial position to subvert the will of Parliament for YorkMix the story really blew up on social media.

And again, the same faces coming in to the pub. A unique expression of shock, pain, upset, heartbreak, anger, frustration and over time, the slow realisation that this weird but wonderful part of our shared culture was about to disappear.

But in every single face there was also a defiance that I’ve never witnessed up close and en masse before. One thing was clear: I might have given up, but York wasn’t going to.

So I sat down with Paul Crossman, Melissa Reed, Allan Connor and Nick Love and over a few superb pints at The Swan we hatched a plan for one last attempt at saving The Blue Bell: a petition.

Phenomenal and fierce response

After we completed the wording Nick launched it on and, well, that’s where you lot come in.

Six and a half thousand of you wonderful, beautiful people. In six days! The response was phenomenal and fierce. It was shared far and wide. Yorkies were up in arms.

The local beer community was outraged and CAMRA branches from all over the country were sharing it amongst their membership. Tourists who have kept in touch signed and shared because the Blue Bell is the only reason they holiday in York and other Publicans – my local and regional competitors – shared it amongst their family, friends and regulars.

A popular pub with a popular landlord – the Blue Bell. Photographs: Richard McDougall

It was this strength of feeling amongst you all that got me The Timesan interview in The Times to highlight what was going on in this tiny corner of Yorkshire.

BBC Radio York noticed the petition and Nick obliged again. Our local Labour MP, Rachael Maskell, got in touch to see if she could help and I met at her office to explain how the entire national situation smacks of corporate Old Boys cronyism.

Rachael wrote directly to the CEO of the PubCo and the minister responsible for enacting the legislation used to evict us.

Then Cathy Booth of BBC Look North came calling and after that TV news appearance – again with Nick and Rachael by my side – we finally had the attention of the full spectrum of national media: local and national news print, BBC radio, regional televised news and to top it all off, parliament.

All of this, because you could be bothered to sign a petition.

Message reached the top

John has given his all to the pub
Your willingness to fight for what you believe is right also got the attention of the PubCo’s CEO – Clive Chesser.

When I finally had the chance to state my case to them, it was directly to him (credit where credit’s due here) because so many of you were so vocal about the plight of this little red-bricked national treasure.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart and thank you from everyone who has, does – and now will for years to come – enjoy drinking in the Blue Bell.

The deal I negotiated is not a free of tie lease but it does guarantee me being here for another six years and prevents a manager from being installed by the PubCo to run it day to day.

This, above all else, was worth the fight. The Blue Bell is a weird little place, and the only way it can stay that way is by keeping it out of the hands of corporate managers.

Whereas this feels like a victory it is important to remember that it was simply a compromise between eviction and a truly fair deal and there are pubs up and down the country going through this awful process and faring much worse.

New house ale

Due to my moaning over the bar day-to-day it is no secret that in the last year I have incurred tens of thousands of pounds in legal costs.

A lot of people have asked me about starting a crowdfunding campaign to help me out so it is nice to be able to tell you all directly: as much as I appreciate the very generous offers the Blue Bell is a business and as such the best way for you to help with the legal costs is to come in and buy a pint, have a natter and then have another.

There’s only one condition: let’s banter about something other than leases, PubCos and Brexit – they’re all wearing thin.

John Pybus and friends in the pub

When you do come in for that pint please ask us about our new house ale which Lee, Wayne and the amazing Brew York team are busy creating at the moment and we expect to have on the bar in the coming weeks.

As with Graham and Linda at the Snickleway, Paul and Mandy at The Rook, Paul at The Swan, individual CAMRA members (especially Melissa and Allan) and everyone at the Fossgate Association, the support from Brew York and York’s publican community has been humbling and, at times, pretty messy!

More thanks

Now John is staying put, for the next six years at least. Photograph: Nick Love
Other than everyone already mentioned – and especially yourselves – thank you to my parents, Ian and Sue, for your love, support and wet shoulders.

Thank you to the Blue Bell regulars who down to a man and woman have been nothing but understanding. Sorry for not being myself at times and thank you for putting up with the tears and moans.

Without you there is no pub, just another city centre bar.

Thank you to Simon and Marie Addy for brunch, banter and secret-keeping, but especially brunch. Thank you Paul Forster for being a rock (as always) in Oz and Caroline Hickey and Jason Perfect for equipping me with the tools to get this far.

A special mention to Ben and the Blue Bell staff who have grafted with a smile throughout, put up with me and answered the daily questions of 6,500 people. I promise more fun shifts from now on.

Finally the biggest thanks must go to my wonderful wife Katie who, whilst finishing her PhD, has immersed herself in lease legislation and court documents, sat in on conference calls, searched for pubs to move to and cried and moped along with me.

All this whilst having cared, supported and carried me through this crappy year. You’re amazing.

So, whilst the national fight continues, for me at the Blue Bell there’s only one thing left to do: get back to work, move on and pour some pints. Drama over, job done, pub saved.

Thank you for signing and sharing the petition. Can I interest you in a pint of our new Brew York House Ale…?