The Plunkett Foundation’s cooperative approach provides a sound financial model, while bringing communities together as one.
The English countryside may be a rural idyll in the minds of stressed city dwellers, but an increasing number of villagers suffer from isolation and loneliness. The closure of about 200 local shops a year means focal points of village life are vanishing, exacerbating a sense of disconnection from the wider world.
Many shops close when owners reach retirement age and no one is willing to replace them. Supermarkets and home shopping make it tough to run a thriving business. But the Plunkett Foundation promotes a community ownership model that is working well financially, as well as addressing rural isolation. Last year, 17 new community-owned shops opened, meaning there are now 330 across the UK, up from 27 in 1994. A further 150 are in the planning stage.
“People say ‘the original shop couldn’t make it as a private venture so why would a community-owned shop be different?’ But the engagement of the communities themselves is the key,” says Plunkett’s Katherine Darling. “Locals usually come to us saying they need a shop so they have a vested interest in making it work. Volunteers reduce costs and work to strengthen the local community. They provide a loyal customer base. Local businesses provide produce. The shops often act as service centres, providing access to essential goods and services, including food,medicines, fuel and cash.”
Darling says once a community shows an interest, the Plunkett Foundation sends a general advisor to explain the democratic model, which gives each member an equal vote irrespective of whether they invest £1 or £100,000. Later, specialists advise on planning, marketing and raising finance. The goal is not just to run a successful business, but also to become a thriving hub of village life. With the cooperative model, these goals are one and the same.
“The goal is not just to run a successful business, but also to become a thriving hub of village life. With the cooperative model, these goals are one and the same”
Hannah Barrett, Plunkett Foundation Frontline project coordinator, says the shops are a powerful tool for building community spirit. “They lead to increased social contact by giving volunteers an opportunity to get involved in community life and creating support networks for vulnerable people. For many people we speak to they provide a sense of belonging, purpose and self-worth,” she says.
The village of North Marston, in Bucking- hamshire, is a case where a local shop has transformed village life. At one time the village had four pubs, a blacksmith, tailor, garage, four private shops, and a post office. But that number dwindled to just one pub. Until the local shop opened in 2011, villagers had to travel six miles to the nearest shop.
Barrett says: “The impact of The Shop at North Marston on its community is remarkable. From the outset members made inclusivity and reducing isolation a core objective. They included the whole community with hand-delivered questionnaires and their comments were integrated into the business plan. That ensured it would meet the needs of all residents and fostered a sense of ownership and commitment. A lot of volunteers commented on how they had become fully-engaged community members after being previously isolated.”
The Village Store and Café in Cottingham, Northamptonshire, has had a similarly transformative effect. The large space has permitted a wide range of services. The café is a meeting place for mothers after the school run and the large upstairs room hosts small businesses and social groups. A small upstairs room, with sofas and games, is a gathering place for young people. “Cottingham creates a network hub where people’s paths cross. Even if the shop and café fall out of favour with certain groups, its ability to unite people just by being there will remain,” says Barrett.
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