Exploring the ‘co-operative village’

Co-operative Futures AGM

Co-operative members from Gloucestershire, Swindon, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire at the Co-operative Futures AGM in Stroud, with (front row), Jim Pettpher, Jo White, and Jane Grindey from Co-operative Futures and Peter Couchman, chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

WHAT would a village or town that fully embraced community ownership look like?

That was the question posed to Peter Couchman, chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation, which recently helped the UK’s most famous community-owned shop off the ground.

Peter, who was addressing the AGM of Co-operative Futures – an agency that encourages the formation of new co-operative and community-owned enterprises in Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Swindon, Wiltshire and the West Midlands – was instrumental in helping the BBC establish a community-owned shop in Ambridge, the fictional setting for Radio 4 soap The Archers.

The BBC, revealed Peter, originally planned a three-month storyline where villagers looked at the feasibility of opening its own community-run shop.

But such was the demand from the show’s 800,000 listeners that the story was extended to see the shop open as a community owned enterprise on June 2, after nine months of on-air planning.

Using Ambridge as a model, attendees were invited to imagine what else in the village could be operated as community-owned enterprises. In the real world, many such schemes are run as co-operatives.

The Bull pub, said Peter, was an obvious example. Although the Plunkett Foundation has helped 250 communities establish village shops over the past 20 years, there is a growing demand from towns and villages to take over the running of their locals, as pub closures run at around 40 a week nationwide.

“Once a community has taken ownership of its shop, it often isn’t enough for them,” said Peter. “They ask what it is that matters to the community – the pub, the school, public transport, provision of health services and the like, and try to apply a community-ownership model to those services too.”

In a few cases, even the village church has become a focus for community-run enterprises.

“These huge buildings cost a fortune to maintain, but are only being used one day a week,” said Peter. “Now we’re seeing real creativity around the use of space at churches.

“Churches were traditionally a home for enterprise, and until the Reformation many of the operating costs were met by the income generated by brewing. Although I’m not suggesting we return to that, there’s been a great deal of interest from church authorities about using the space for shops, cafes and a community meeting space – this will be big news over the next few years.”

Another big topic in the future will be how a community meets its energy needs. “Ambridge has a river, which could be utilised by a hydro scheme, and lots of open space for a wind farm,” said Peter.

But listeners should not expect to see a hydro-electric power plant open in Ambridge any time soon: “The show is not a pioneer new ideas, but reflects what is going on in rural communities,” said Peter.

“It is down to the ideas and the actions of people in this room that makes these things possible.”

Among the guests at the AGM were Sheila Bull and Pamela Cook from Down Ampney Village Shop in Gloucestershire, which in July moved from its portable building home of 12 years to a purpose-built extension of the village hall, thanks in part to a £25,000 loan from the Co-operative Loan Fund.

The meeting was held at the studios of Gloucestershire Printmaking Co-op at Stroud. The co-operative promotes fine art printmaking, encourages artists engaged in the medium, and provides training in traditional printmaking techniques, some of which have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

Anyone who wants to start or grow a business that is a co-operative or community owned enterprise can contact Jim Pettipher at Co-operative Futures on 0845 456 2506 or at info@co-operativefutures.coop, or log on to www.co-operativefutures.coop for more information.

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