Open Letter from Cheltenham Sub Branch

The last several months have seen many discussions taking place around the county on the subject of the desire of the Cheltenham sub-branch to become a full branch. There may have been some stories and rumours circulating about why we want to do this. This open letter is our attempt to put the record straight and explain the reasons, rationale and aspirations behind this move.

The history of the branch is instructive. Originally, a group of keen beer drinkers wanted to form a Cheltenham Branch, but were persuaded to expand geographically and form a Gloucestershire branch. The success of that branch has been tremendous. The quality of ‘The Tippler’, the size of membership across Gloucestershire, and the continuing success of the Cotswold Beer Festival (now in its 38th year) are all testament to a tremendously successful branch and one of which members can be justifiably proud.

The current Cheltenham sub-branch has, in the last few years, grown considerably (as of May 1st there were 883 members) and has been very active within the county. However, at the end of 2012, the Cheltenham sub-branch committee felt that, due to many factors (including the desire for greater autonomy and financial control, more local geographical focus, the size of the membership, etc.) the time was right to create a full CAMRA branch.

A branch working group was set up to look at how the county might be reorganised. However, it met very infrequently and failed to make any real progress as to how this might best be accomplished – whilst of course still maintaining a strong CAMRA grouping across the county. Towards the end of 2013 there was a sense of frustration amongst our committee and general membership at this lack of progress, and we decided it would be constructive to make the branch committee and Regional Director aware that we were serious in our desires to move forward.

To this end we decided to call an Extraordinary Meeting of our members to establish the extent of the desire to become an independent branch. After we had called this meeting we consulted with the RD who informed us that if we did get a mandate from our members, he would also need to be convinced of a further two issues before he would be happy to authorise our new branch status. The first of these issues was that he needed to be satisfied that a new Cheltenham Branch would be viable as a sustainable entity in its own right. Secondly he would need to be convinced that there would be no adverse impact on the remainder of the Gloucestershire branch.

At the EGM (held in January) we had a magnificent turnout of seventy members of the Cheltenham sub-branch, 80% of which voted in favour of us becoming a full branch – we had our mandate. The RD recognised the response and commented on how well the EGM had been conducted.

To address the RD’s first issue we put together a detailed campaign plan for our group going forward (sub-branch or full branch) and started to address all of the action points within it to enable us to achieve our stated objectives. This action plan was presented to the Regional Director and he has commented that he was impressed with its content and has indicated that he may even use it as a future branch blueprint.

Among the action points, we hope to have our own Beer Festival up and running in the next 18 months, once a suitable venue and date can be agreed, and we have some exciting plans to raise the profile of real ale and real cider and to increase active membership across our area. Already a new and upbeat website is up and running, and you can see it at www.cheltenhamcamra.org.uk.

Regarding the RD’s second issue, the impact on the remaining Gloucester Branch, the last thing we would want to see happen is any weakening of CAMRA campaigning across Gloucestershire. In fact the reverse is the case; we want to help strengthen it. We do not see that the formation of a new branch would have any adverse effect; rather we see it as the county showing the strength in depth of membership numbers and active volunteers to be able to support another full branch (much like many other successful counties across the country). We believe that a county federation of very active, locally focussed, branches (who are able to respond quickly to issues and opportunities) is a stronger and healthier organisation. This is more in line with the typical CAMRA model. Sussex, for instance, supports five branches very successfully.

We also appreciate the work of other very active sub-branches in the county, particularly those that run their own superb and very successful beer festivals, and we certainly don’t want to burn bridges with these sub-branches or indeed with the branch committee. Instead we really want to build and extend existing relationships. Finally, just because Cheltenham becomes a ‘Branch’ in its own right, there is no reason why Cheltenham members should not continue to be very active members on cross-county teams and be involved in helping out other branches – in fact we will be the first to encourage this.

So, what are our hopes for the future?

We have a thriving and improving beer scene in Cheltenham, with many top quality pubs, clubs and shops helping to promote real ales, real ciders and overall CAMRA objectives. We want to take advantage of this ‘buzz’ to increase active CAMRA membership and allow more dedicated CAMRA campaigning to take place with a localised focus.

It has now been almost eighteen months since the idea of a new branch was first mooted. In our keenness to get things moving, we may have unintentionally sent out messages which concerned a few people across the county – this was never our aim and we hope that you will appreciate that our intentions are truly aimed at keeping a strong overall CAMRA presence in Gloucestershire. We hope that this letter will help to clear up any misunderstandings which may have occurred in recent months, so that we can focus on making this great movement even more of a success story, championing great local breweries, great pubs and growing the CAMRA membership.