Saving and rebuilding community shops

Community shops

 The Feckenham Village Shop has benefitted from the Community Shops Network

Mourning the loss of your beloved local shop? With a little help from the Community Shops Network, you can set up and run your own shop and post office...

Forget tractors, forget birdsong: the clap of closing doors and the rusty turn of padlock keys has formed the rural soundtrack of the past few years - at least where local shops are concerned.

More than 400 shops went out of business last year alone, and with them not only post offices, newspapers, food and drink, but also social spaces, places to bump into friends and share news with neighbours. Once at the heart of many rural communities, the double-bypass surgery being carried out by the recession and a ubiquity of superstores has seen pulses slow, and eventually stop.

There is a blip on the screen, however. A lifeline has been established in the form of the Community Shops Network (CSN), and although it's too early to say that all patients will recover, vital signs are promising.

Launched in March by social enterprise charity the Plunkett Foundation, CSN aims to help small towns and villages set up and run their own shops and post offices. An injection of self-determinism, it is empowering residents to take control of these communal facilities and to run them for the sake of the community.

'Local shops are there not just for people to buy things but to be sociable, to say hello to people,' says Kate Westlake of St Germans in Cornwall, chair of a local committee that is in the process of setting up a community-owned shop. 'Without them, places like this would die. When our original shop shut its doors for the last time in December 2008 it effectively closed the village. People stopped using the pavements - they had nowhere to walk to.'

Community lifeblood

Vowing to see life return to their village, the residents of St Germans set up a Monday evening committee and sought help from the CSN website. From there they learned how to navigate the planning process, create a business plan and access all-important grants, such as those available through the Village CORE Programme.

Eighteen months later and St Germans is eagerly awaiting the arrival of its new shop and post office. Opened for business on 29 May, it is housed in a former pub storeroom used for fruit machines, transformed with the help of local builder Dave Bennett.

A part-time manageress will visit in the mornings, and the rest of the time the tills will be manned by a growing army of volunteers - 25 have so far put their names down to help make the project a success. St Germans is eagerly anticipating the prospect of a return to normal sociable village life - that much is evident in Westlake's voice when she says excitedly, proudly: 'We have shelves!'

Westlake is just one of the 150 CSN members, all involved in some way in running or setting up shops dedicated not to profit but to people. There are 237 community-owned village shops across the UK, 38 of which opened in 2009, with a further 40 expected to have set up by the end of this year.

As well as pooling expertise and allowing communities that already running one to share their experiences, it offers factsheets and practical information for those whose shops are facing closure.  Nenthead in Cumbria, five miles from the nearest small village and 25 from Penrith, typifies the type of rural community the network was set up to protect. With just 400 residents, many of them elderly, and little public transport, the loss of the local shop was a disaster.

'The owners had been trying to sell it for three years, but as it was just a shop, with no accommodation, and it made so little money as a business, no-one wanted to buy. We had started raising money to do so through selling shares, but unfortunately the sale fell through,' says Sally Orrell, chair of the management committee that runs Nenthead's new community-owned shop.

Luckily the local over-60s club had a former library at their disposal, built in the 1830s and used sporadically as a reading room. As a registered charity, the club wasn't allowed to sell the property, but the shop's shareholders were given permission to rent it on a 99-year lease for £30,000, and it opened for business in November 2007.

As in St Germans, the money to create the new shop and post office came from the Village CORE Programme, managed by the Plunkett Foundation in partnership with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Co-operative and Community Finance. It provides financial start-up packages and advisory support, and allowed Nenthead's residents to access a maximum grant of £20,000, which they were expected to match, and a further loan of £20,000.

For evidence of the extent to which others are availing themselves of the growing support network to save their community spaces - and by extension evidence of the scale of the threat against them - consider that the Village CORE Programme, set up in 2006, was originally a three-year project. Demand was such, however, that it has been extended until 2012, aiming to add more to the tally of nearly 60 community shops it has helped create.

Wider interest

Interest in the issue has increased further since long-running Radio 4 rural soap opera The Archers featured a storyline where one of the characters starts up a community shop. Plunkett chief executive Peter Couchman says this was a great way of ensuring communities are made aware of the option to do similar - which is where CSN comes in.

'A few years back people would tend to put a lot of energy into researching and exploring themselves, whereas now, by making use of the Community Shop Network, all that energy can go straight into getting the doors of the shop open,' he says. 'Every community needs access to the best support it can, and the more we can learn together the better.'

Although it works predominantly in England, Plunkett has partners in Wales, is planning a community shop event in Northern Ireland later this year, and works closely with Scotland's Community Retailing Network, on whose board of directors Couchman sits.

'The loss of a shop to a community can be devastating, not just in terms of access to retail,' he adds. 'A community that chooses to save its shop is therefore saving a lot more than just a facility; they're saving something that actually connects up the way of life they're enjoying and trying to protect.'

Eifion Rees is a freelance journalist

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