By Lee Mannion
BRIGHTON, March 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was nearly lunchtime at The Bevy in Brighton on the south coast of England, and pub regular Peter Hartley led a group of elderly people he had ferried by minibus from their homes for their weekly Friday Friends session.
A group of labourers were enjoying a liquid lunch at the bar. Just before leaving, one man - who had laid the wheelchair-access ramp a week earlier - handed Hartley 100 pounds ($138).
"Amazing, isn't it?" said 68-year-old Hartley, beaming at the workman's friendly gesture.
"I told you this place is more than just a pub."
Three years after The Bevy reopened on a housing estate that is home to 18,000 people, this community-owned pub is bucking a long-term national trend of pubs closing down.
Each week, 21 high-street pubs shut in England, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a group that lobbied for a 2011 law which protects former pubs from demolition or a change of use by requiring local people to be consulted first.
Almost 20 local residents' groups - like those behind The Bevy - have raised almost 4 million pounds to buy and run their own pubs in England over the last two years, according to the Plunkett Foundation, which supports community-owned businesses.
It is a growing trend, with about 60 such pubs across the country, said the charity, which is expanding its programme offering advice and funding to establish community-owned pubs.
"Going to a local pub, for a lot of people that's like having a family, having that social network that they might not have in other walks of life," Katie Wiles, a spokeswoman for CAMRA, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
And even though profits are small, pubs like The Bevy generate a different sort of return - looking out for local people after years of budget cuts have strained services.
Britain has steadily brought down a budget deficit that stood at 10 percent of economic output in 2010 mostly through spending cuts for many government departments.
After retiring three years ago, Barbara Gibbons, 68, started running Friday Friends. She phones 30 people the day before to see if they need a ride, and has the added responsibility of providing 16 pints of custard to accompany dessert.
"There are people that are on their own, they can come in, have a coffee and a natter. At least once a week they're not in total isolation," she said.
In the wider Brighton area, 14,000 older people live alone, according to Age UK, a charity for the elderly. And government figures show this part of east Brighton, called Bevendean, is among the top 10 percent of most deprived areas in England.
Gibbons used to visit the pub back when it was the Bevendean Hotel, before the police closed it for anti-social behaviour.
Today The Bevy - whose name is derived from the former hotel's name and is English slang for an alcoholic drink - is owned by 900 shareholders who raised 50,000 pounds between them.
Gibbons is glad it is back.
"Without this, we'd be in some soulless church hall or something," she said.
As the raffle for tins of pasta and soup started up ahead of lunch, Hartley confided it is a crafty way of getting some of the Friday Friends to eat. Even if they do not win, the two-course lunch costs just three pounds.
Food is hard to come by for some residents. There are now 16 food banks in Brighton - including one in Bevendean - up from 13 when The Bevy opened, according to the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, a local charity.
"There is a lot of food poverty in east Brighton, and we're hoping we can do something about that," said Jonathan Morgan, 86, as he stood proudly in the garden out back where the first shoots of potatoes and onions were poking through.
In a few weeks those vegetables will be cooked in The Bevy's kitchen by Nathaniel, Jo and Matthew, and served by Alexandra - all from St John's, a local school offering training and work experience for youth with learning difficulties.
"These work experiences must be realistic and supportive, and The Bevy provides exactly that," Sarah Hamilton, who manages the programme at the school, said in emailed comments.
"The project has done wonders for disability awareness in the local community, and all of our learners feel accepted and welcome at The Bevy."
The pub serves the community in other ways too. A regular "dementia cafe" will start this month, offering stimulation for sufferers and support for carers. And the National Health Service has run check-ups at The Bevy.
Pub manager Iain Chambers believes the pub provides an essential service.
"Everybody's sort of under pressure from austerity economics," he said. "We've lost an unemployment centre, we've lost a surgery, we've lost a youth centre ... we know that we've got to be here."
(Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion, Editing by Robert Carmichael and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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