Playing shops – an update

3 May 2012

Much of my “spare” time, a dozen days off and (look away, boss) countless hours at work have been devoted to starting a community enterprise, a community owned and operated village shop operating within our local Methodist Church.

To get to where we are, I’ve turned my hand to cash flow forecasts, radio interviews, lobbying, writing grant bids, costing EPOS systems, cajoling villagers, negotiating with church bureaucracy, learning bookkeeping and Sage accounts, fund raising, fleeing farm dogs and other hazards.

There’s been frustration and elation in equal measure. At the end of March, I let out a loud whoop as we got the fantastic news of a grant offer from Village SOS, a Big Lottery Fund. That seems so long ago as we face challenges on a daily basis.

It’s nice then to get the odd day away from the village. What better way to spend it: a day of “retail therapy” at Dillington Hall, Somerset with the Plunkett Foundation. Do shopkeepers have busman’s holidays?

Like most of the other conferences I go to, the day was as much about networking as it was about learning new things. But, I did learn much about the thought process of turning people into profits. I know that sounds a bit calculating. But, what we’re trying to create is not only a community resources; it is an enterprise. For all the fluffy, middle-class-ishness of the project, the volunteerism and grant-aid, our venture has to turn a profit. Our neighbours are our customers. (They are also our owners as this is a true community owned project.)

This is serious business. Collectively, we have to act responsibly on behalf of the community. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure I will at one stage have to don a suit to pitch our case for that last bit of funding.

Plunkett, as I think I’ve said in a previous post, is at the forefront of the community shop movement. There are nearly 300 such ventures up and running in the UK, where a commercial shop has succumbed to rural decline, the Post Office’s slash-and-burn strategy, shopkeeper retirement and/or the power of out-of-town big boxes. Who in their right mind would want to work 24/7 over a village shop with squeezed income? Without such devoted business people, it’s left to communities to fend for themselves.

Last Friday was another great opportunity to meet many others who’ve trod the path, opened shops and successfully kept them running. My notebook is stuffed with advice and contacts. My colleague also picked up a list of local suppliers from another shop.

We’ve still got much to do: raise more funds, get our lease in place, recruit a part-time paid manager and volunteers and umpteen boring tasks.

It’s daunting, exciting. I’d like my life back, but I’m sure I’d do this all over again.

I hope you can make a trip to North Devon sometime to buy locally produced cakes, cheese from the next village, the best strawberries in the world or greeting cards from our village photographer.




Sending out an SOS

1 March 2012

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

Putting silly ideas into people’s heads

6 February 2011

I shouldn’t have watched the People’s Supermarket.

It’s just given loads of silly ideas about running our community shop as a co-op with discounts for members.

Silly programme.

I’d much rather sit at home and watch TV like everybody else, waiting for the Tesco van to pitch up with milk costing 19p per litre from Mr Farmer when it costs him 24p per litre to produce. It’s his fault for not being competitive enough.

No, Sainsbury’s should continue to dump 100s of tonnes of food a day, some of it perfectly good except for a torn label or past its display date, because that’s economic.

Why should I work for my community? It’s not like we all have to live in the same place, deal with the same snow, the same lack of services, disappearing bus service, Asda-isation of shopping and alienation.

Food miles? No, it’s all about Nectar points.

I’d much rather send the profits out of the village. And, profit it is. Feeling good about the place you live is no substitute for profit.

Silly programme. Putting silly ideas in to people’s heads.

Get on your dancing shoes

17 January 2011

Just got back from a meeting of our shop committee which, rather reluctantly, I chair.

Our local village shop closed nearly two years ago. The owner was losing money and patience, especially after the Post Office shut. It created a big whole in the shop’s business plan. There was no option but to close.

Since then we’ve been putting together plans to open a community owned and operated shop. It won’t be able to match what our old shop provided in range of goods, but we’re planning to make it a focal point for the community.  We’ll offer the shop plus a social space within the church vestry. We’re working in conjunction with the Methodist church on this project, ensuring that the church fabric is used 7 days a week.

Apart for finalising our business plan, we are buy trying to raise funds. It’s tough work not least because there’s several other organisations in the village scrambling for everyone’s pennies.

We are putting on a barn dance on Saturday 12 February in the Buckland Brewer village hall. So, if you are in the area and fancy shaking a leg for a couple of hours in a good cause, why not come along!

Drop me an email: bbshop at btinternet dot com