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.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Mary Portas tells Plunkett three things every community-owned shop should know

I had the pleasure of attending Co-operatives UK's Audience with Mary Portas. I asked her for one piece of advice that she'd give to a community learning to become retailers by owning their own village shop. In true retailer style, she gave me three for the price of one.

Create a totally personal service for your customers. We all want to shop with people who connect with us. So be someone who knows their customers.

Be someone who knows what they are selling. There are too many faceless retailers.

Shopping experience
Too often the small try to copy the big. Be something that reflects who you are.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Big Society and the Life of Brian

It was a great pleasure to be part of a lunchtime seminar for Defra civil servants on understanding social enterprise in a Big Society world run by Defra's Social Enterprise Strategic Partnership. My colleagues dealt with explaining about Social Enterprise and then left me to explain the Big Society connection.

I said that I approached this with some caution as most presentations I heard from organisations to Government on the Big Society reminded me of the crucifixion scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian. Namely, that wonderful moment when Brian doesn't hear the Centurion ask who is Brian as he has been given a pardon. So when the Centurion asks who Brian of Nazareth is, Brian's neighbour replies "I'm Brian." Then the person next to him says that he is Brian and so it goes in, ending with the wonderful claim "I'm Brian and so if my wife."

So I decided not to join the throng of claiming that we were the true Big Society, but set out instead where we did play a role. Rather than trying to reinvent it, I took the three main headings of localism, volunteering  and philanthropy.

The challenge of Localism remains that it means different things to different people. As Steve Wyler of Locality has said, for some it ends at the Town Hall door. We engaged with Big Society when it reached actual communities. Social enterprise generated sustainable enterprises which have the potential to unlock community energy today and to continue to deliver for years to come. Defra needed Localism to be strong at the community level if it was to progress its own objectives.

Promoting volunteering was not easy in a time of austerity, but the time had come to end presenting it as the amateur option. Big Society thinking already challenged the traditional thinking that separated the public sector and enterprise. Social enterprise also was able to combine enterprise with volunteering. For instance, community-owned village shops were highly stable enterprises, but used over one million hours of volunteer time. Supporting such crossovers between volunteering and enterprise was an opportunity for Defra.

Philanthropy was the least attractive of the three words for social enterprise, but still relevant to us. We often challenged grant reliance, but our alternatives tended to be about unlocking resources from a range of places, not just traditional philanthropy. Community shares, equity investments, bonds and social impact bonds were all examples of social enterprises bringing new resources to bear on solving problems. Whilst we had changed, Defra needed to think about how it might support such new funding approaches.

If Big Society was a priority across Government, it was a real opportunity in Defra. Many of its priorities could only be made to work through Big Society approaches. Social enterprise alone was not the Big Society, but a Big Society without it would be a much poorer place.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

This is not a shop

One of my fond memories of last year was meeting the chair of a shop that I'd been to the launch of. It was a great shop, much needed, and had been opened against all the odds. He spent several minutes pouring out all the had improved in the village thanks to their work. Then, suddenly and in mid-sentence, he stopped himself as he realised that he hadn't mentioned the shop once. He paused and said "It's not about running a shop, is it?" I replied, "It never was, we just didn't tell you at the time"

That magic moment when community organisers go beyond solving the immediate problem to seeing that this the way to see all your community needs and challenges as being in your own hands to solve happens so often. Sometimes it can take years to come. So I was delighted last Saturday when I visited Trefeglyws in Wales for their official opening. I congratulated them on the shop only to be told "this isn't a shop." They were right at two levels, alongside the shop were a petrol station, cafe, meeting space and more. But at a higher level, they were right too. It was a vision of what their community needed and a vehicle for constantly refreshing that vision in the future. The Cwm Trannon Community Co-operative was a great inspiration that it is possible to start with that level of vision rather than hoping it comes in the future.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Extending our impact

Congratulations to Kirdford Village Stores  in Sussex for winning the Daily Telegraph's 'Best Village Shop in Britain' award. It is always a pleasure to see community-owned shops beating all-comers to take such a title.

By coincidence, I had the pleasure of visiting there a week before. All I can say is that Sue and her team richly deserved the award. There was no doubt that they were doing a great job delivering a fantastic service to their community. But there was something else that struck me there, and in visiting the neighbouring stores. The passion that community-owned stores have for sourcing local food is now at a stage where it isn't just the store they save, but a whole variety of local businesses.

That was visible in Kirdford. It was also clear nearby in Lodsworth. I'd been there when the store opened, restoring a service to a village which had been without a village store for 23 years. This time, it was just the store that was thriving. THREE food businesses had opened up in the village and were supplying the store. In one case, the store was delivering the goods to other local stores. I saw the same thing in Strood Green and Hambledon; communities taking control not only of their store, but of their local food system.

We've been supporting local food in village stores through the Making Local Food Work programme for some time thanks to the BIG Lottery, but it was great to see a real sea change at a local level, not just for the store, but for the local economy.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Back to school to discover co-operation

One of the great joys of being part of the international co-operative movement is that one lifetime is far too short a time to know every form of co-operative action around the world. New experiences come along with a wonderful regularity.

I had a great example of that last week when I visited Sir Thomas Boughey High School & Co-operative Business College near Stoke-on-Trent. It is one of the pioneering Co-operative Trust schools developed thanks to the work of the Co-operative College. I expected to find its structure to be co-operative and exciting; it was. School membership was open to parents, learners, staff and the community. But even more exciting was the learning going on there.

Its view of co-operation was drawn from around the world. It captured the richness of co-operative action from all parts of the globe, not just a traditional UK perspective. It was rooted in co-operative values, which had been the focus at the schools even before the co-operative structure. Many decades ago I was part of the group of co-operators that would run co-operative projects in schools and dream of what could be if it became a whole school activity. At Sir Thomas Boughey I saw that dream becoming reality.

If one lifetime isn't long enough, but the early start that the learners at the school are taking will give them a head start on the rest of of us in understanding the wonderful diversity of co-operation around the world.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

New Year wishes

The first day week is always a good time to think about what you hope to see in the coming year. Here are four wishes for the coming weeks and months.

1. That more rural communities start to believe in what they can achieve together
Our biggest single barrier remains of communities not seeing that they can be the solution to the problems they face. Whether inspired by the Big Society vision or driven by the age of austerity, there are real opportunities for more communities to take control this year.

2. That more communities who have saved their village shop will now go further
A number of communities are now on to their second generation of their shop. Inspired by their own achievement, they are taking co-operation as stage further by tackling the other issues their communities face to create multi-purpose enterprises that go far beyond the original shop. Let's see more taking that next step.

3. That even more diverse forms of rural social enterprise will emerge
We've see the shop success spawn the co-operative use of pubs, churches and many other enterprises. Let's see the imagination run riot on solving issues not tackled before.

4. That the Coalition Government recognises that communities shouldn't have to reinvent wheels
The passion for encouraging frontline action is laudable, but those on the frontline want to devote their energy to their community, not in solving problems that others have solved before. Recognising the role of specialist intermediary bodies to spread knowledge is a vital part of helping of making the Big Society a reality on the frontline.