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Community-ownership: the big answer to the Big Society?

Mike Perry, Head of Information and Communications at the Plunkett Foundation, considers whether community-ownership of local shops and services might provide the big answer to the Big Society.

With the Big Society being seen as a solution to many challenges facing the UK, attention is turning to how the Big Society can provide the ‘big answers’ that many rural communities are seeking.

Community-ownership we believe is just that. It is an enterprise model which uses the energy and creativity of a whole community to establish a model of mutuals, co-operatives and social enterprise in order to save a range of services which are important to communities. All this with limited cost to the tax payer and creating a strong business that will be the centre of a community for years to come. What could be more Big Society?

The Old Crown, HesketThe Old Crown, Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria: the UK’s first community-owned pub when it opened in 2001

The Rise of The Archers Co-operative

As any keen Archers listener will know, since October the show has played out a fictional tale echoing the real life journey of many rural communities across the UK. The only shop in Ambridge was threatened with closure after the owners decided to sell up. As the only shop, the community reacted with shock and concern at the decline of this vital service which provided so much to so many people in the community.

The Archers have taken their 800,000 daily listeners through the process of a community coming together to set up a community-owned enterprise to save their shop. We at the Plunkett Foundation have been advising them on the storyline and, to their credit, the Archers team have visited a number of community-owned shops to find out what really happens to make saving a shop a reality.

In May we heard how the community reached their target of raising the funds needed to save the shop after being supported by the fictitious arm of the Village CORE Programme, a real life support programme dedicated to helping communities set up and run a community-owned shop, matching community contributions with a grant and loan. Over 50 new community-owned shops have opened through this programme since 2006 and community-ownership is now saving around 10% of village shops threatened with closure – estimated at 400 in 2009.

Tim Smit opens Lanreath community-owned shop in CornwallTim Smit opens Lanreath community-owned shop in Cornwall – the only shop based in a former toilet block

Bringing communities together

It’s not just about having a place to buy a paper and a pint of milk. Community-owned shops bring a whole community together around a common cause and this process is leading to other community-led actions and benefits that would not have happened before:

  • Vital meeting places are provided for villagers who may otherwise be isolated or socially excluded – particularly older people, young people, young families and those with limited access to public or private transport.
  • The shops also often rely on volunteers, providing inclusive opportunities for many people in a community to learn new skills and to keep active for longer.
  • They also sell a great deal of local food helping to support local farms and food producers; Plunkett supports them to do this through Making Local Food Work.

I could go on! In all, they greatly contribute to the wellbeing of a community.

Thanks to The Archers, awareness of the potential for community-owned enterprises has never been higher. The knock-on impact has been greater numbers of communities coming forward with the confidence to take on this challenge themselves. This is a legacy The Archers can rightly feel very proud of.

The Big Answer

With interest rising in mutual, co-operative and social enterprises the question that quite rightly gets ask is: does it work? The answer in specific relation to community-ownership is a resounding yes. In the last 25 years 252 community-owned shops have opened their doors and today 245 are still trading. Can anyone name a business model that’s more robust in these terms?

Community-ownership is providing the ‘Big Answer’ to a growing number of communities across the UK. Numbers of community-owned shops are exploding and interest is rising in how the small number of extremely successfully community-owned pubs and community broadband schemes can similarly be turned into greater numbers.

The Old Crown community-owned pub in Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria, was the first such pub in England to open in 2001. It has been followed by more openings this year, the latest being the George and Dragon in Hudswell, Yorkshire, where William Hague is a shareholder. Communities across the UK are starting to take control of broadband access in their community. The Coalition Government also has great interest in community-owned energy with community-owned wind farms, hydro-electric and anaerobic digesters up and running.

Truly sustainable development, our founder felt, needs to embrace enterprise as a way of solving a variety of challenges facing a community. It should provide social as well as environmental outcomes and it should be owned and controlled by the community.

The Plunkett Foundation promotes and supports co-operatives and social enterprises in rural communities worldwide. It provides support, networks and knowledge to help rural communities to be aware of, understand and implement practical solutions to the challenges that they are facing.

Further reading

User comments

  1. Jeff Mowatt says:

    It’s a small part of the answer and something I’m on to in my own right:

    But the bigger picture by far is in making sure it isn’t done selectively as showcase economic development,

    Our funder also believes in enterprise with the needs of people at its core to be truly sustainable development and he wrote a paper about it.

    Taking it to Russia he reports back on the results which include a 99% first year survival for thousands of micro businesses.

    Jeff Mowatt

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