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Community group continues mission to save village pub

Mid and West Wales MS Cefin Campbell, fifth from right, with residents of Salem, Carmarthenshire, who want to save The Angel Inn (Pic: Cefin Campbell)

A GROUP trying desperately to save its village pub said its mission continued despite the owner gaining planning permission to convert the building into two homes.

The group, Salem Gar, is appealing for support in its bid to take over The Angel Inn, Salem, near Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, and has raised more than £20,000 in share pledges in just over a week.

Salem Gar director Aled Williams said he and others didn’t want to sit by as a community asset was lost. “It’s now or never for us,” he said.

The pub closed in 2021, according to a Carmarthenshire Council planning committee report, with its owner Paul James citing a lack of custom.

He has tried to sell it, and also sought planning permission last September to cease its use as a pub and convert it into two houses. His application was approved by councillors at a meeting on April 25. The decision was a blow for Salem Gar, members of which addressed the committee urging it to reject or defer the proposal.

Reflecting on the decision, Salem Gar director Aled Williams said: “We are not publicans – we’re busy, hard-working families – just a group of residents who don’t want to see their local close. The life went out of the village when The Angel shut its doors. And we want it back.

“When the planning notice appeared to change the pub into houses, it was a bit of a shock – and the spark that ignited our community.”

Mr Williams said he recalled the pub closing in 2022, not 2021, and that it was hard to witness the loss of community assets. “We sit by as our pubs, village halls, sports facilities, youth clubs and churches close one by one,” he said. “We’re fed up, to be honest.”

Speaking at the planning meeting, Mr James said a number of tenants had tried to make a go of The Angel Inn, including he and his wife, but that it wasn’t economically viable despite the low rent he charged. He said Salem Gar wouldn’t be able to make the pub work and claimed that they “couldn’t even be bothered” to buy a drink there when it was open.

Mr Williams told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that villagers had attended the pub regularly, that Sunday roasts were very popular, and that the venue hosted charity discos, comedy nights, quizzes parent teacher association events and a packed running race.

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Salem Gar wants to acquire the building and run a shop and cafe as well as a pub, with other ideas including a market garden and farmers’ market. Mr Williams said the local Women’s Institute had offered to run the proposed shop. “People here want to get stuck in,” he said.

Beer at the now closed Angel Inn, Salem, Carmarthenshire, which a community group wants to buy (Pic: Caroline Welch)

The planning committee report said Mr James had been prepared to sell The Angel Inn to Salem Gar at the beginning of this year on the basis of the group securing funding. Salem Gar applied for a £250,000 grant administered by the council but was unsuccessful, and the offer to sell was withdrawn.

Mr Williams said the group was working with business and community pub experts, would reapply for another £250,000 grant when the next funding round opened, and also planned to change from a limited company to a community benefit society to open up more funding opportunities.

Salem itself has around 60 houses but there are scattered hamlets in the area – what Salem Gar member Kevin Nutt described at the planning meeting as a “large agricultural hinterland”.

Cefin Campbell, Plaid Cymru MS for Mid and West Wales, visited Salem on April 26 and described the group as feeling “a little bit aggrieved” but determined to press on. “What we are seeing is the demise of (rural) banks, pubs, schools, and we need to try to arrest this decline,” he said. “In the current financial climate it’s highly unlikely that we are going to get a huge amount of investment in rural areas. We would like to see more communities buying pubs like The Angel, in Salem, which is why I’m supporting the group.”

During the planning application process Mr James responded to objectors’ written concerns, at one point describing Salem Gar’s plans as “utopian dreams”. He said he had run some six pubs in his life, and that it was not for the faint-hearted. “Volunteers may be full of good intent at the start of something like this but they will fall by the wayside as time goes on and novelty wears off,” he said.

Mr James had previously applied to the council to convert The Angel Inn into three flats, with two new holiday units at the rear, but the application was turned down.

He said the pub was still up for sale and that the fact that there was now planning consent for two houses didn’t preclude Salem Gar from offering to buy it. “I feel for the residents of Salem, but nevertheless it has not changed my mind that the pub is not viable,” he said, adding that he was pleased with last Thursday’s planning decision.

Industry group the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said Wales had 2,943 pubs in 2023 – 63 fewer than the previous year – and 101 breweries, which together supported 54,000 jobs including the supply chain. Business rate relief for pubs in Wales is now a lot less than in England.

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of BBPA Wales, said she wished Salem Gar every success. She added: “The cost of doing business, even for the most successful pubs, remains too high and with every £1 in £3 spent in a pub going straight to the tax man, what we need now is for the Welsh and UK governments to work together to put in place a fiscal and regulatory framework that will underpin the future success of the Welsh beer and pub sector and ensure pubs do not just survive, but thrive.”