Peter Couchman is the Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is the organisation which promotes and supports co-operative and social enterprises in rural communities both in the UK and internationally. It provides support, networks and knowledge which offers practical solutions for rural communities that helps to create thriving places where people live and work now and in the future.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Looking ahead

It has been quite a year and huge thanks are due to everyone who has played a part in taking rural social enterprise forward this year. The tradition is to look ahead to the coming year, so here are my five wishes for our work next year.

1) Yet more community-owned shop openings
This year has seen a record 33 stores opening. The pipeline looks great for 2010. I hope that we have turned a corner so that this is simply the natural way that rural communities save their retail services.

2) The shops become a sector
One of the highlights this year has been the development of the Community Shops Network, which enables the shops to share ideas with each other. My hope is that this leads to a real sense of belonging to a shops movement with a wide range of initiatives spinning off the network.

3) Rural social enterprise gets the support it deserves
However successful the shops have been, there is no room for complacency. The reality that too many great ideas in rural communities never get to become sustainable enterprises because of the barriers they face. I hope that our Right to Try campaign helps to create the support those communities deserve.

4) The rise of Community Food Enterprise is recognised
As discussed in previous blogs, the local food sector is changing dramatically. More and more communities are playing a role in ensuring that they have access to great local food. As the number grows, these are starting to form local food systems. With food rising up the political agenda, I hope that 2010 is the year in which people realise that they can no longer see the food sector as just farming and food companies, but that communities have a vital role to play as well.

5) Rural co-operation begins to be recognised as a vital part of international development
The great news this week was the U.N.'s decision to make 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives. Plunkett is beginning its work of ensuring that the role of rural co-operation is recognised with this. Rural co-operation is more than just food; it is every form of human need. I hope that 2010 will see use starting to build towards the great opportunity that 2012 will offer.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our Plunkett Perspective readers.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Right to Try Conference

Plunkett has opened bookings for its Right to Try conference in London on January 27th. The concept is a simple one. Rural communities should have the right to try and use community ownership to solve the problems they face. All too often they come across barriers erected without thought or bad intention but which lead to them struggling to succeed.

Property and planning is an obvious area, but it is by no means the only one. Inappropriate business support, access to finance, regulation and many others also stand in the way.

The conference will help to define these barriers, to see how common they are between different enterprises and how they can be removed.

Jim Paice MP, shadow farming and rural affairs minister, will be exploring how the Conservative Party Community Right to Buy could support rural communities. Alun Michael MP, always a great supporter of rural social enterprise, will look at the issue from a Labour and a local government perspective.

Unlocking the power of communities to tackle issues has the potential to impact on many parts of rural life. We hope the conference will make a major contribution to achieving this.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Local food - all together now

It's been a week of policy meetings, ranging from political parties to churches. One thing that has stood out for me is how the food agenda has shifted. Not just the rise of food security as an issue, but also in the contribution that we can make.

It's clear to me that the local food movement is in a very different place to where it was just a few years ago. The main focus then was on celebrating individual growers and suppliers, the brave souls who had pioneered the importance of local and who created food of outstanding quality and diversity. They are still there and as inspiring as ever. But the debate has moved on.

The building block has shifted to that of community. How do communities come together to create local food systems to give access to all. This will be a rising issue over the next few weeks and months. The answer isn't clear yet.
Is it a plan?
Is it a co-ordinating committee?
Is it a set of services for suppliers?
Is it an investment vehicle?
Is it an enterprise which exists to support other enterprises?
I'm sure that we will start to see the early pioneers emerging and Making Local Food Work looks forward to working with many of them to build the next stage of the revival of local food.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Plunkett rejoins the international co-operative movement

I had one of those moments in life when I was presented with the flag of the International Co-operative Alliance to mark the Plunkett Foundation rejoining. I suddenly realised that the last time I'd had an ICA flag in my hand I'd been a teenager standing on the roof of a windswept Co-op Department store in Brighton trying to get it to go up the flagpole as part of my Saturday job. There have been one or two changes in life since then.

The General Assembly of the ICA can easily take your breath away given the amazing range of countries there and the diverse forms of co-operatives that they represent. That diversity is due in no small measure to Sir Horace Plunkett who moved the motion at its inaugural meeting that the ICA should welcome all forms of co-operatives, not just consumer co-ops.

It was an exciting time for the movement. A real sense of hope and the election of a new president, Britain's own Dame Pauline Green. I am sure that she will bring tremendous energy to the role and will help the ICA to make full use of the International Year of Co-operatives in 2012 if the UN approves it next month.

Plunkett also had the pleasure of taking its seat on the International Co-operative Agricultural Organisation. To hear a fine presentation on agricultural co-operatives and climate change from James Graham of the Scottish Agricultural Organisations Society made the day worthwhile.

The event taught us that Plunkett still has an important role to play in international co-operation, particularly in the field of rural co-operative development. It may be a long way from the flagpole in Brighton, but the challenge is still as urgent.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The End of the Beginning

Rural community-owned enterprise is on a roll. A banner headline in the Sunday Telegraph proclaims "The Rise of the Archers Co-operative". The best part of a million people tune in to hear the residents of Ambridge discuss how to save their village shop through community ownership. In the real world, store openings are at record levels with many more in the pipeline. It's a great time to be at Plunkett, but let's not get carried away.

The boom in community-owned village stores is fantastic news, but we still have a long way to go in rural community-ownership. The shop is just one way a rural community can tackle its needs. There are many others: pubs, church space, transport, energy, broadband, housing, healthcare...the list is huge. But most of these are still only just emerging with a few brave pioneers developing models which have yet to catch on in the way that shops have done.

This week sees the formal launch of our project with the Community Transport Association on rural community transport supported by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, so there are steps being taken to broaden the range of enterprises. But it is still an uphill struggle to secure support for these emerging forms of community-owned enterprise.

So while we rightly celebrate the success of village shops, let's also redouble our efforts to support the next wave of rural community-owned enterprises ...and the next..and the next.

Finally, a solution to a social dilemma you face. You'll want to celebrate Social Enterprise Day on November 19th, but you also want to celebrate the fact that it is World Toilet Day as well. Problem solved: raise a glass to the incredible people of Lanreath in Cornwall who created their community-owned village shop from their local toilet (see the older blog "Convenience Retailing").

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Transition to co-operation

Every so often, you get to speak at an event where the energy coming off the audience makes you feel like you're standing in front of an open fire. I had that last week when I spoke at the Transition North event in Slaithwaite. The event was an ambitious one, bringing together not only transition supporters from across the North, but also a broad range of people from the co-operative movement. Sponsored by The Co-operative Group, it was a real chance to explore links between the two movements.

Following on from leading light in the Transition Towns movement Rob Hopkins and Christine Tacon, head of The Co-operative Farms, my role was to show the links between the two movements. To do so, I went back into co-operative history to show the similarities between the two. I cited Robert Owen's vision of Villages of Co-operation which would tackle social injustice at a community level and focus local production. I shared how Dr William King had taken this vision and turned it into something practical where the only way to achieve this was for small groups to come together and create these communities step by step - selling food to each other and using the profits to buy a shop, then using that profit to buy land to grow, then using that profit to create housing etc. All of this came to a head with the Rochdale Pioneers whose vision was not to create a shop, but a 'self-supporting home colony.'

Naturally, Sir Horace Plunkett's role also appeared, both with his vision for how to tackle change in society but also his warning to the US Government that its economic system would be undermined due to 'peak coal'.

But the presentation wasn't all history as I showed how co-operative models were helping to shape the local food movement through such diverse forms as community-supported agriculture, food co-ops, farmers' markets, Country Markets and village shops. Our next challenge was to bind these together into local food systems.

The points that seemed to hit home were:
1) The scale of the modern co-operative movement - a number of transitioners were struck by the statistic that co-operatives employ 10% more people in the world than all the multinationals and their subsidiaries put together (100 million against 90 million).
2) The image that transition and co-operation were not two different movement but simply two waves on the same ocean as generation after generation sought to create societal change through collective action.
3) My final point was to see co-operatives as a way of securing long-term solutions for the individual parts of a Transition community. Voluntary action alone could not create models which would last for generations, which is what we need. But the Transition approach could bind these together. The enterprises were the bricks and transition was the mortar.

I was delighted to trigger ideas from so many people from both the co-operative and the transition movement. I'm sure that the event will help build links that are so vital for everyone.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Mutual friends

I was delighted that Plunkett's work has been recognised in this year's Mutuals Yearbook, which case studied one of the village stores. The yearbook is produced by Mutuo, the impressive think-tank which promotes the role of mutuals.

This recognition was extended to an invite to speak on membership at the annual Mutuals Forum alongside the Eaga Partnership and Luton & Dunstable Hospital Foundation Trust. What could our shops teach such a gathering of major mutual organisations? Quite a lot was my argument.

The freshness and vitality of our recently formed mutual enterprises meant that their members were doing many things that some older mutuals may have forgotten that members could do. Things such as:
Belief - The members had to believe that creating and sustaining the enterprise was possible, often against impossible odds, because they believed that there was no alternative.

Enterprise - Village shop members were directly involved in shaping the fundamentals of their enterprise and often had to find innovative solutions to problems themselves.

Skills - Many of them shared their own personal skills with the enterprise as it was run on a volunteer basis.

Team work - They knew that they either supported each other or their mutual would fail.

Customer service - This was their main focus as they would stand or fall on it.

In the discussions afterwards, I responded to a query of whether this only applied to smaller mutual. No, was my response, because we had seen similar passion in campaigns on international issues, such as Jubilee 2000. We live in a world where more and more people expect to be able to shape the services they receive. People who saw such work as a campaign not a membership. The challenge to all mutuals was to find what it was that they did that could unlock such a passion in their own organisation.

So we are delighted to be recognised as part of the mutual sector and look forward to sharing our knowledge and learning from others within it.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Going Back Home

Plunkett went back to its roots with a visit to Ireland last week. Minister Tony Killeen made the invitation when he spoke at our AGM. It was a wonderful opportunity to use our standard tool of analysis of "What would Horace have done"?

First call was Cork where Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Agency, was holding a conference on Ireland in Uncertain Times. The event provided an excellent insight into the challenges of Ireland's rural communities. The economic briefings made it clear that the impact of global recession was happening harder and faster in Ireland than in the UK by every measure.

Teagasc director Gerry Boyle gave an inspirational and challenging speech. He spelt out the opportunities, but set the challenge as being the lack of organisational capital. Communities needed to be enabled. Farmers had to move from producers to retailers. "The worst deficit is that people are unable to contemplate change." This was followed up by Gerry Scully, Teagasc Programme Manager, who called on agencies to "co-create solutions with people."

My other Cork highlight was the inspiration of meeting Brian Phelan, who created Glenfinn Freerange Duckeggs, a wonderful example of what can be achieved in uncertain times.

Then it was on to Dublin for my first ever visit to the Plunkett House, the first ever home of the Plunkett Foundation and still home to the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society. Its Director General (and Plunkett fellow) John Tyrell gave me a marvellous tour of where it had all began.

Then it was on to meet Minister Killeen to share first impressions. Using Sir Horace's mantra of Better Farming, Better Business and Better Living, I said that I was hugely impressed by how much Teagasc was still providing research based knowledge to farmers in exactly the way that Horace had called for in Ireland over 100 years ago. The real opportunity seemed to me to be a strong desire to connect the economic challenges with Ireland's strong community base. However, I wasn't hearing any reference to community-owned models such as co-operatives and other social enterprises.

The scale of the challenges are such that, to quote Gerry Scully, "more of the same will not be good enough." What was striking was that the chance to do things differently was already waiting to be used from the approach used by Sir Horace and the incredible team of people who worked with him to tackle issues of equal weight in Ireland all those years ago.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Making Local Food Work Conference

The second Making Local Food Work conference was held in Bristol last week and what an event it turned out to be. The first had sold out its 150 places in just a few days, so we took the bold step of booking a 250 place venue for the second. This sold out too with a waiting list.

The main thing that I loved about the day was the wonderful variety of people there. They must have come from every aspect of the local food movement and the learning between them made the event worthwhile.

The speakers didn't disappoint with Tim Crabtree as inspiring as ever on Bridport, but now complete with animated slides. Barny Haughton of Bordeaux Quay came straight from Keith Floyd's wake to wander through why local food mattered to him. My quote of the day came from Professor Kevin Morgan. In an impassioned speech asking why food wasn't part of modern city planning, he heaped praise on projects such as ours. But, he added, how to we prevent them from being "islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity."

It is a point well made. The desire to connect seemed to be the undercurrent of the day and it is something that we'll need to put our minds to.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Green care and community ownership

Fascinating trip this week to speak at a Green Care conference of academics looking at Green Care and agriculture. Green Care is a very broad church but can be defined as "to use nature

to produce health, social or educational benefits" In the UK, this is best shown by care farms, that provide a wide range of experiences on farms to benefit people faced with such issues as addiction, learning difficulties and many more areas. You can find far more out at the National Care Farming Initiative, a really inspiring organisation.

Plunkett was asked to out this work in a wider social enterprise perspective. To do so, I suggested that there were three main categories of enterprises involved. The first was those, such as care farms, based on existing agricultural businesses. The second was enterprises established to deliver green care, such as Walton Lea. The third was existing social enterprises who could add green care, but weren't set up to do so. I suggested, for instance, that Fordhall Farm was, in essence, providing green care for all. My main argument was that this third category, if rooted in community ownership, could offer not only a route from social exclusion, but also a route back into social inclusion.

Another plea was to recognise that many of the development needs of green care enterprises were close to community enterprises and it was important not to reinvent the wheel.

What inspired me most was the group's determination to provide evidence of the impact of giving an individual a green care experience. This could be a powerful tool to help convince policy formers and I wish them every success.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Right to Try gets manifesto endorsement

Congratulations to the Co-operative Party for becoming the first political party to adopt Plunkett's Right to Try idea in its manifesto. Whilst the Foundation is politically neutral and seeks to influence all mainstream parties, we are delighted to recognise this endorsement.

Right to Try is a simple idea. All too often communities hear of the closure of a shop just as it is about to close its doors. This then creates an almost impossible task of deciding that the shop could be saved, rallying the community, setting up a new organisation, raising the funds to save the shop etc. All this has to be done before the failed enterprise can be bid for. All too often this results either in having to restart the enterprise or, in some cases, the shop being lost to private housing.

Right to Try calls for the a community to be able to express its interest in trying to save a shop and being given a period of time to put its proposal together. This simple breathing space could save an enormous amount of stress for many communities. It would also encourage shop owners to discuss plans in advance.

We'll be raising this idea with all parties, but congratulations to the Co-operative Party for getting in first.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Plunkett AGM

Annual General Meetings are often not the most inspiring events if you've helped organise them, but our AGM last week left me with a spring in my step.

It wasn't just the pleasure of sharing a platform with inspiring people from Feckenham Village Shop, Community Transport Association and Thames Valley Farmers Market Co-operative. It was the sense of connecting our past with our future. It was great fun to share some of our future plans, but it was also a privilege to celebrate our Irish roots. Ninety years ago, Sir Horace had planned that we would be based in Dublin and Oxford. Well, we managed both but not at the same time! I summed up our links to the past as being an organisation whose head is in Oxfordshire and whose heart is in Ireland.

So we were delighted that the Irish Government sent Minister Tony Killeen to join us in our 90th anniversary. He spoke warmly of the role of Sir Horace and how he hoped that Ireland could learn from the path that the Foundation has taken. Our roots were also represented by John Tyrell who, as head of the Irish Co-operative Organisations Society, represented an older brother or sister to our own as it was created in Sir Horace's middle years and we in his later ones.

It was a great pleasure to see both John and former Plunkett Chair David Button receiving their Plunkett Foundation fellowship to recognise the enormous contributions.

Some organisations forget their past, other forget that they also need a future. I don't think that we could be accused of either on that day.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Back to College

Last week saw me going back to college. Not, I hasten to add, because of the start of the new school year, but two events both held in Oxford. The International Co-operative Alliance Research Conference at Queens College, Oxford was quickly followed by the Society for Co-operative Studies Conference at Ruskin College, Oxford.

Spending several days immersed in academia had me thinking about its relation to our work. It seems to me that there is great opportunity, but the challenge is finding the right people to link with. Put simply, I'd suggest that the academics fell into three distinct groups.

The first are completely dispassionate about co-operatives and approach them with all the passion of one who is about dissect a frog in a biology class. This group rarely manages to connect with the passion of the movement, but is thankfully very small in number.

The second group cares about the sector, but produces work which has little if any application by real enterprises. This is the largest group.

The real value lies in the third group which not only cares but also produces work which could be taken and used on the ground. Few in number, the potential of these of great and Plunkett looks forward to working with them.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

24/7 Service to order

My favourite shop visit of the week was the village store that gave each of its regular volunteers a front door key. They could then come down to the store at any time, day or night, to meet their retail needs and those of their neighbours. I won't mention where in case their insurance company doesn't like the idea. Volunteers shared stories of just popping in because their neighbour had run out of coffee.

I don't think that this is a model of customer service that any supermarket managers will be rushing to copy in the near future.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Margaret's message

The Plunkett Foundation has, rightly, been celebrating the legacy that Sir Horace Plunkett left us in terms of his thinking on co-operatives and rural development. His 'Three Betters", Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living, still form the basis of our thinking. This means that a community is entitled to access the best possible technical solution to the problem they wish to solve, that the best model for them to come together to tackle that problem is a co-operative one and that they must remain connected to the community that they are seeking to serve.

Our next stage in exploring our rich heritage is to recognise the role of Margaret Digby, our greatest ever employee. Margaret's involvement with Plunkett spanned nearly 50 years, the bulk of that at its head. Yet, like Sir Horace, I think that you can distill her message into three components. Time and time again, she would have to look at what a country needed to make its co-operatives a success. One of her earlier works on co-operatives in Newfoundland distills this nicely. For co-operatives to thrive, they need:
1) Co-operative legislation - legislation which eases the creation, operation and protection of co-operative forms of enterprise.
2) Co-operative education - those involved in the co-operative need to be educated in how it works and how to combine running a successful business with the principles of the co-operative.
3) Co-operative support - they need access to the best possible support at their start up and as the evolve.

It may be over 70 years since Margaret laid these ideas down, but I wager that if you mapped successful co-operative sectors against access to those three element, you'd find it as true today as it was then.

Monday, 27 July 2009

A better form of retailing

We've had quite a few discussions lately about how community-owned retailing will evolve. Thanks to a few new projects, there are some excellent opportunities coming up to help develop retail skills in the sector. What I find interesting is the question of whether they should simply follow the practices of the main retailers or is there a different way to develop.

Visiting shops shows what the challenge is. Most shops are clear that they have to capture the emergency purchase market in their village, but that this alone is not enough to sustain them. Few customers will do their full weekly shop there (although many thanks to those that do). What interests me is what the next step along the path is from emergency to full shop.

PS The next Plunkett Perspective will be on 17th August.

For mainstream retailers is is widening the convenience offer and expanding existing ranges. I think that community-owned shops are developing a different model. For many of them, the next stage is to add something different that you can't get elsewhere, often from local suppliers. They are building a retailing model  designed to give reasons not to go elsewhere. It's early days, but I think that a retailing offer which is based on the values of the store is one that will grow to challenge the mainstream.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Join the dots for social enterprise solutions

One of the exciting frustrations of my work is having to live in two worlds. The first world is with the enterprises we support; a world brimming full of people with amazing ideas and with the energy to make them real. Then there is my second world, the policy world, where all too often people just don't seem to get it.

The contrast between the two worlds was very obvious this week with the publication of "Working Together for Older People in Rural Areas" by the Social Exclusion Task Force. Here was a report full of excellent analysis of the challenges faced by the growing population of older people in rural areas. The argument was compelling and the need to change obvious. But when it came to solutions, where were the social enterprises? It was the same tired approach that Government alone can solve problems.

Rural social enterprises know that this is not the only solution. They offer a way for older people to remain active in their communities long after the days of paid employment  are over. The average village shop has a team of 70 volunteers helping to keep the shop, and the village, alive. Each of those volunteers is interacting with their community in a way that increases their health opportunities. Other enterprises will produce health outcomes, such as access to services which the mainstream has abandoned.

The SETF report is one of many that fail to show social enterprise as a valuable alternative to the options of public or mainstream business solutions. Some of the fault for this lies within the sector where we have presented ourselves as a problem on a long list of problems, rather than as a solution which can be more effective in some areas than the alternatives. As community after community is finding out, it is a solution which policy formers ignore at their peril and their cost.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Hearing a different voice

The last Royal Show gave a wonderful range of choices for this week's blog. Tempted as I am to comment on how well our Communities Taking Control campaign went (which it did) and the wonderful range of people who took time to vote on rural issues at the stand (including a dog from Dogs for the Disabled), it was a very different event that stands out for me.

The New Zealand Government has held a breakfast at the show for decades. Once I'd survived the shock of lamb chops, venison and seafood for breakfast, the speeches started. First up was the New Zealand Minister of Agriculture, the Hon David Carter MP. He spoke of his country's pride in farming. He spoke of how much food mattered to them. He spoke of how they would tackle the role that agriculture plays in climate change. All of this was done with a clear sense of pride in his country's agriculture. It was the most positive political speech I'd heard on agriculture.

Next up was Sir Henry van der Heyden, chair of Fonterra Co-operative Group. Once again, it was a speech that brimmed with optimism. He was proud to be a farmer, excited by what was happening now and confident about the future.

Here was a fantastic lesson for all who communicate about farming issues in the UK, Government or industry. The lesson was that people listen to positive people. The public has, for too long, switched off to the downbeat messages from our world. The New Zealanders shared a glimpse of what the impact is when we sell our issues standing on the front foot.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Communities Taking Control Launched

Last week was an exciting one as Plunkett prepared for this week's Royal Show. The event will see the launch of our new campaign "Communities Taking Control." This is to promote the fact that rural communities can, and do, take control of the issues affecting their everyday lives. Whether it is saving a village shop, a pub, transport, their local food supply or creating renewable energy, community ownership offers a way of saving a vital service today and into the future.

This is a major step for Plunkett, taking our message out to a wider audience than ever before. If you're visiting the Royal Show, do drop in to our stand (Avenue K, Communities area, stands 9 & 10).

Over the coming weeks and months, the campaign would build into a positive voice for what can be achieved when a rural community comes together. You can read more about the campaign and on what we are doing at the Royal Show here.

Monday, 29 June 2009

A Magic Moment

Last week was an incredibly frantic, but inspiring one. Yet despite the variety (visits to the Lake District, Oban and Co-op Congress, as well as meetings with Energy4All, Community Retailing Network and Reading University), one moment stood out.

That moment came at Co-op Congress (Co-operatives 2009 in new money). Jo White from Co-operative Futures and I were running a workshop to share the launch of the Co-operative Development Network with delegates. Rather than just launch into a stand-and-deliver lecture, we asked the audience to share in groups all the co-operative eneterprises that they'd be proud to see formed over the next ten years. It was only a warm-up activity, but the passion it unlocked was incredible. Groups filled up flipcharts with incredible ideas (many of them designed to tackle rural issues) and could have filled many more.

It showed how much could be achieved if we could line up the right resources. Jo shared the current barriers and I introduced the new network which will see a wide range of organisations committing to work together to create new co-operatives and support existing ones.

Working at the front, the energy from the audience was incredible and Plunkett looks forward to helping making some of those flipchart ideas become real.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Social Media: more than just a toy

One of my strangest speaking experiences was when I addressed a workshop at the Canadian Co-operative Congress this week on using social media.  It was strange because the audience was 3,500 miles away at the time. Even stranger was giving a powerpoint presentation to an audience that I couldn't see.

I was presenting alongside Tim McAlpine of Currency Marketing, which has supported the inspiring work in Alberta and many other places to get the credit union message across to young people. If you haven't seen the incredible work of Larissa Walkiw, then stop what you're doing and watch this video now. Tim makes a powerful case for what any values-driven business has to get its message across and the price of not doing so.

I was there to share how Plunkett is using these tools and the need to not see them as toys, but as the way to engage people now and in the future. Most of our current tools for engagement, such as meetings, are based on models developed 300 years ago. Few people would want 18th century healthcare or education, but 18th century democracy is still widely used.

The debate around the forthcoming Digital Britain report illustrates this problem well. The issue of broadband access has been well covered. What hasn't been covered is what to do with it. Few communities have shown how they can use this to completely change the way they access services and support each other. The star performer here is Alston in Cumbria with its Cybermoor co-operative and its plans for Alston Healthcare.

What Alston has also shown is the importance of ownership in this debate. No mainstream provider could have provided the additional benefits that Cybermoor has. Hopefully the Commission for Rural Communities report coming out this week, assisted by the Community Broadband Network, will make the case for this.

The choice for rural communities is simple, you can use your hard won broadband to watch kittens on a treadmill videos or to tackle the lack of access to services by changing what it means to access services in rural areas. Plunkett has nothing against kittens, but it will be the latter that we will be concentrating on.

Monday, 15 June 2009

No need to reinvent wheels

The local food sector is brimming with so much innovation at present that it is easy to overlook that which was there long before the current generation. So it was with great pleasure this week that I spent time with Country Markets hearing of its plans for the future.

Country Markets hasn't obtained the profile of other local food initiatives, but its results are impressive. It has 65 market societies operating 400 markets with 12,000 producers. That's 12,000 people creating great food in their own homes and then sharing it with others.

Like Plunkett, Country Markets has been operating for 90 years using the co-operative model. It's a fantastic way that individuals can become involved in local food production. You can find full details and how to find a market on its website.

What excited me most was that this was an organisation not living on its past. It had exciting plans for the future that will transform how its products and its markets are presented. Country Markets was using its role as a partner in Making Local Food Work, the BIG lottery funded programme which Plunkett leads, to ensure a vibrant future. I wish them every success as they represent both a great tradition and a model of individual food production combined with co-operative selling whose time has come.

Monday, 8 June 2009

DFB: A (Sir Horace) Plunkett Perspective

One of the great tools that we have at the Plunkett Foundation is to analyse any event from the perspective of what would Sir Horace have made of it. There's no doubt that he would have had strong views about the demise of the Dairy Farmers of Britain co-operative.

He would have been saddened that its passing attracted little coverage outside of the business and farming press. Saddened even more at the lack of concern for farming families who lost one-twelfth of their annual income at a stroke, a chunk of their savings and left many facing cashflow problems, often from the very banks that their own income tax payments had been used to bail out.

He would also have been saddened by the lack of understanding in the coverage. One describing the farmers as "employed" by the co-op, another saying that there was no difference in co-operatives and companies.

But his greatest sadness would have been that he had told the world long ago how such problems could be prevented. He had made it clear that co-operatives could only fulfill their potential if they remained rooted in the communities that created them. He saw time and time again that a move away from this was the first step down the path to failure. 

Sir Horace, however, always hoped. He hoped that one day the farming community would turn to face the communities it came from rather than the city bankers and business consultants. He'd hope, once again, that this time the lesson would be learned.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Showing the right things

There was much to enjoy on a family trip to the Bath and West Show. One of the stand out stalls for me was the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative, OMSCO. This was for two reasons. Firstly, it didn't hide the fact that it was proud to be a co-operative.

Secondly, it didn't take product awareness for granted. It SOLD the idea that people should switch to organic milk (yes, even in recession), not by a call to conscience but by laying out the benefits and then letting people taste the product.

This "on the front foot" mentality is just what's needed in hard times, selling your product and your identity with all the pride you can muster.


Saturday, 23 May 2009

Convenience Retailing

I spent an amazing two days this week visiting stores in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset with the Plunkett advisors in those areas. Every store was an inspirational tale of how a community had overcome adversity to save or create their village store.

The store that showed me that anything is possible was Lanreath in Cornwall. Faced with the loss of the village store and no commercial premises available, they used the only public building in the village - the village toilet. The result is a fine store that uses every square inch of space (and still provides the previous facilities). If Lanreath can do this, then I can't think of a community that couldn't find a solution themselves.

As our advisor, David Geeves, put it, it brings a whole new meaning to convenience retailing.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Faith in enterprise

I spent a fascinating afternoon in Oxford at a conference for Church of England officials on using church buildings for community benefit. There was a real commitment there and some great examples of projects.


My talk was on using church buildings (and land) for community owned enterprises, with co-operative examples from Jamaica and Ireland as well as the UK.


I laid down two challenges. Firstly, don’t just see this as a property issue. Church communities have as much to add as people as the building that they bring with them. Their values are also a major strength, as long as they accept the values of others as well.


Secondly, realise how much expertise is out there already. I suggested that 80% of the challenges they would face were the same as any other rural community-owned enterprise. Avoiding wheel reinvention could save a lot of their energy.


The event gave me a great deal of hope and I look forward to following it up with a meeting with the Churches Conservation Trust.

Monday, 11 May 2009

If we could bottle it

I attended my first shop opening with Plunkett on Saturday. Mells Village Shop and Post Office in Somerset put on a magnificent show. The village turned out to see Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs open the shop. Then everyone adjourned to the village hall for a fantastic display of local producers.

If ever I needed a boost to get up in the morning, it could come from Mells. There was the sheer pride (and relief) that the community had saved their local store. But this was tempered with the knowledge (and determination) that there was so much more that they could do (and I'm sure will do). If we could bottle those feelings then this movement will grow even faster.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Recession Busters

Feckenham Village Shop
The news that community owned village shops are opening at a recession busting rate of five a month for the last two months is starting to attract attention. This going up the down escalator achievement has been covered not only by the such newspapers as The Times. The Guardian and The People (including editorial) but was featured on Defra's website thanks to Simon Berry's excellent blog.

The real question is not what is happening, but why. That was clear when I visited three shops last week. Although Feckenham, Blockley and Longborough were very different, it seemed to me that they were all focused on two things:
1) Succeeding - they were completely focused on delivering a great service to their community. Not one of them even mentioned recession. They were all passionate about reaching the next stage of their development.
2) The price of failure - each knew that the stakes were high. As one put it "How many villages can you walk through and see the old shop, the old bakery, the old school etc." When rural communities fail, the impacts are felt for decades not months.

So this growth isn't a strange quirk. It's the result of a passion and focus that mainstream business would do well to learn from.

PS You can follow Plunkett updates on Twitter by following PeterCouchman

Monday, 27 April 2009

Lessons from Fordhall Farm

One of the highlights of my first week was attending the AGM of the Fordhall Farm Community Initiative. Fordhall Farm is a rare example of combining three aspects of rural social enterprise in one place.

The first aspect is HOW the farm was saved. The story of how the farm, on which Arthur Hollins helped pioneer the modern organic movement, was saved by his son and daughter through enlisting the support of thousands of people to create the Fordhall Farm Community Initiative has been well documented. The story is best read in Ben and Charlotte Hollins book, The Fight for Fordhall Farm.

Inspiring as this is, what is now becoming clearer is the second aspect, namely WHAT it is that they were fighting to save. Fordhall was always about more than saving one farm. I thought that this best shown in the recent BBC documentary on The Farm of the Future. In that, Charlotte waxed lyrical not on the structure of the Farm’s ownership, but how its pasture had been developed to support a very different way of farming. Their plan for the future is focused on making the vision visible to a wide range of people.

Then there is the third aspect, which few have achieved and which Fordhall is becoming a master of.  That is using the HOW to achieve the WHAT. Put simply, it is using its ownership structure to generate a level of engagement that others can only dream of. How many other farms can boast of volunteer days sold out months in advance, demand outstripping supply for its products, open days heavily supported and a dedicated band of people helping with administration for the love of the farm?

I think that all rural social enterprises could do with spending some time thinking how they could develop those three aspects for their enterprise as powerfully as Fordhall has done.

Monday, 20 April 2009

First Day

Twenty minutes into my new role as Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation and I think I might have made a mistake. Sweat is pouring off me, my head is reeling and my legs want to give way. Thankfully, this is due to me deciding that my first act should be to join our running team in a five mile race round Blenheim Palace.

It took considerably less time for me to be sure that Plunkett is the place to be. This is an organisation whose time has come. The solution that it offers for rural communities to take ownership of the services they need most could have been made for the time we live in. With seven community owned village shops opening in just five weeks, there is a real sense of the tide turning. It is our role to make sure that as many rural commuities as possible know about what can be done, believe that they can do it themselves and are then supported to make those dreams real.

The Plunkett team put in a fine performance in the race with two of us running a faster time than Conservative leader David Cameron. I'm sure that our performance over the coming weeks and months will be equally impressive.

The Plunkett Plodders at the start of the Ox5 run