To Birmingham city centre, to talk about … villages.
Village SOS you may know from the BBC tv series. Ten communities received Big Lottery funding of £300,000 or more each to help deliver community projects to rejuvenate villages across the country.
Big Lottery has now rolled out Village SOS into a larger project with a budget of £5.3 million, granting between £10,000 and £30,000 to fund community enterprises.
My village has bid for a grant to kick start our community shop project. I went to Birmingham for the national conference, to pick up advice, network with other activists and hear about how Village SOS and other projects can help us. There was an entire village full: 350 delegates. Peter Ainsworth, Big Lottery chairman, was an excellent chair throughout the day.
It was a day of inspiring stories, not all of them grant funded. Peter Maher is a true hero, leading a campaign to save the Fox and Hounds pub at Ennerdale Bridge in the lake district. Faced with closure of a significant community asset, the village needed to raise £77,000 to secure the lease. In ten days. The missed the target: instead hitting that figure in seven days.
From Northern Ireland, Niall McFerran spoke about the Ballygally where the village lost its shop, but took over a car park and built a wonderful new shop and community centre. The project has brought together people from all faiths and walks of life.
One of the better episodes of the TV series involved the old mill at Talgarth in mid-Wales. Rescued from dereliction, the mill is now a tourist attraction, money spinner and employer in what was a sleepy, lethargic, nearly dying village. Bruce Gray, from the project, spoke passionately about three Vs that underpin successful community enterprises. The vision is important: get people to buy into the vision. Then tap that enthusiasm (or vivacity). Volunteers are crucial and every effort must be invested in them to keep them enthused and happy.
During the middle part of the day, I took part in one-to-one sessions with experts from Cooperatives Futures, Support 4 Community Projects and the Plunkett Foundation. These were a little bit like speed dating, but with a more lasting future. I got some useful advice on some of the trickier aspects of our share offer, business planning and outreach to our potential owners.
Plunkett has proved to be an invaluable source of help and support in our project. The foundation has become the leader in helping communities deliver community owned and operated shops throughout England and Wales. There are now 273 shops of which Plunkett knows. Only 11 such shops have failed in the 20 years of Plunkett’s work. That’s a staggeringly low business failure rate. Shop openings in recent years have outstripped Tesco.
Peter Couchman, Plunkett chief executive, was one of the main speakers. His message: the time is now for rural community enterprises. There is no cavalry coming to the rescue of village services. We have to do it ourselves. Failure is not an option: the price is too high and there is too much social and community capital invested. Volunteering is the key. In the UK there are over 1 million hours volunteered every year.
There were many breakout sessions. Of course, I chose the shop masterclass, hearing about two highly successful projects: Kirdford and Brockweir & Hewelsfield. Both shops have had major challenges, not least of which is keeping volunteers going day after day, week after week and so on. some great ips on marketing, fund raising and retailing: thanks!
I’ll skip over the session on the Localism Act. Brain hurt!
As a bit if light relief, Matt Baker from Countryfile, Blue Peter and other programmes I don’t watch, spoke for 15 minutes about his village life. Matt’s three positives of village life are: community, tradition and ownership.
All in all, a fulfilling day though I was somewhat disappointed that I seemed to network with not volunteers but agencies.
At least I was vox popped: twice! I’ve only scratched the surface of all the issues raised, but then I guess that’s the sign of a good conference. I could have done with these event 12 months ago when we needed inspiration and advice to relieve our perspiration and strife.
The message I took away? As one village shop activists said: “It’s not just a shop, it’s about what this community wants to be.”
contribution for the Weekly Blog Club