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.

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