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.

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.