When the Cornish village of Lanreath lost their village shop, it was devastating for them. For some it meant longer journeys, but for the elderly or those struggling financially the impact was even worse. So they came together to think what they could do.
With the old shop converted to houses, with no commercial property and with no land available for development, their prospects looked grim. Yet, by thinking co-operatively together, they found one underused asset in the village; the village toilet. They took the toilet block, turned it into a shop (complete with its previous facilities) and today they have a successful, profitable village shop. True “convenience” retailing.
But they are not alone. Across the UK, over 300 communities have saved their shop through co-operative action. Such work isn’t restricted to shops, with other rural communities saving their pub, creating local food enterprises, transport, broadband or using their local church as a place of enterprise.
Such community action has been going up the down escalator in a time of recession. These “amateurs” have been out pacing the business mainstream. Only 13 shops have failed out of 314 in the last 20 years, far better than ordinary business survival rates. Their growth rate and their like-with-like sales have outperformed the big supermarkets.
What marks them out is their ability to realise that the solution to many of their problems lie in their own hands and that a co-operative business model can solve such problems for generations to come. They attract tremendous loyalty with 1.2 million hours of volunteering time going in to keeping them running on top of all the jobs created.
A community thinking together will often come up with solutions that individual entrepreneurs won’t. A number of shops have been created in portacabins when no property was available. One community even built their shop underground to overcome planning obstacles.
They are creative in their retail over with over a quarter of sales coming from supporting local suppliers. Food that would have gone to waste can be used in the community and the shop is often the place where people relearn what it means to be connected to your neighbours.
For many, saving a rural service through co-operative action is not a one-off, but a journey. Hudswell, in North Yorkshire, cam together to save their pub as a co-operative but have ended up creating a shop, a library and allotments as well.
Such approaches are not new. The Wales Co-operative Centre (www.walescooperative.org) has promoted co-operation in Wales for 30 years. The Plunkett Foundation was created by the pioneer of Irish Co-operation, Sir Horace Plunkett.
He helped to create around 1,000 co-operatives in rural communities in the late 19th century and the approaches he used are one of the drivers of these modern pioneers. The Welsh Government supports the provision of advice in Wales using this method.
Wales certainly has its share of pioneering enterprises. The Pengwern Arms is owned by the community of Llan Ffestiniog in Meirionnydd. In Powys, the village of Trefeglwys created Cwm Trannon co-operative.
This operates not only the village shop, but also a petrol station, café, meeting rooms and exhibition space. On its opening day, its chair spoke of it being “what this community wants to be.”
The above examples sum up what this modern co-operative movement is all about. Everyday folk doing extraordinary things by taking action; deciding which of their problems they want to solve and using co-operative models to solve them, hopefully for generations to come.
Peter Couchman is Chief Executive of The Plunkett Foundation http://www.plunkett.co.uk