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Co-operatives taking up the post.

Mark Anslow

1st May, 2008

With so many rural post offices in the UK threatened with closure, Mark Anslow visits two villages whose residents have taken it upon themselves to deliver the goods.

'Why don’t you sell Mattessons sausages any more?’ It’s the kind of question you might expect in any village shop, only this one didn’t come from the other side of the till – it came during the shop’s Annual General Meeting, and the questioner was a significant shareholder in the business.

A month later, Mattessons sausages were on the shelves of the village shop and post office in West Meon, Hampshire. Community-owned and run as a mutual association, the shop operates for the benefit of its customers and ploughs any profits back into the village.

The origin of this retail revolution has its roots in a situation now faced by thousands of villages across the UK: the closure of the local post office. In the case of West Meon, the owners were ready to retire and sell up, but couldn’t find anyone willing to run the business.

A group of villagers led by Rupert Younger decided the facility was too important for the community to lose, and set about an ambitious plan to finance, build and run a new one.

‘I put an advert in the Parish News for a meeting in the village hall,’ Younger recalls. ‘I wasn’t sure how many people would come, but was stunned when over 270 people turned up – they were hanging out of the doors!’

At the meeting, Younger and a group of supporters put forward plans to run the shop as a community enterprise. Arranged around the hall were tables filled with piles of share certificates, which, for £10, entitled the holder to a stake in the business, a say in the AGM and a vote on who would sit on the committee.

 ‘We sold 400 shares that night, and it was extremely important in getting people on board,’ says Younger. ‘Once they felt they were involved, a real sense of goodwill towards the shop developed. We knew we wouldn’t be able to compete on price with a supermarket, so we needed to feel confident that people would be prepared to spend 10 per cent more in the shop.’

Together with a bank loan, interest-free loans from the community, money from the Post Office and a ViRSA grant – the Village Retail Services Association – the shop and post office reopened in a new location in November 2006.

The mail must get through

Just down the road, in Ropley, a starkly similar situation was playing itself out. The village couldn’t find a private buyer to take over the shop and post office when it came up for sale in 2001. The shop closed, and was eventually converted into residential accommodation.

As a temporary measure, a mobile post office service was set up in a communal building left to the village in perpetuity by a former resident. Part of this legacy included a nearby stable block, which was used for car parking and as an occasional meeting hall. Desperately in need of a permanent location for the post office and a replacement shop, the semi-derelict stable block set the villagers thinking.

‘We had no money and no-one willing to take on a shop as a private enterprise,’ says Ropley resident David Hope-Mason. ‘So we contacted ViRSA, who suggested we set up an association and start up a shop as a mutual concern.’

At a village hall meeting similar to that in West Meon, villagers bought 300 shares and voted in a committee to manage the association and oversee the construction of a new shop.

By October 2006 – after crucial grants from Defra, the local council, loans from residents, a carefully negotiated rent-free lease and the expertise of a highly skilled volunteer committee – the new Ropley village shop and post office opened its doors to an expectant public.

‘Initially, there was a feeling of having accomplished something really special, and needing to nurture and support it,’ recalls Hope-Mason, ‘but soon people came to treat it as an ordinary, useful shop.’ Both stories could have ended there, but the sense of shared ownership and significant investment of time and money made by both communities meant the shops quickly became much more than originally intended.

Local sourcing is a priority: 25 per cent of West Meon’s stock is from local suppliers – including local cakes, bread, milk, flowers and even West Meon-branded coffee – and the committee hopes to increase it to 50 per cent. At Ropley, roughly 30 per cent of the produce is local and includes preserves, honey, wine from the village vineyard, fruit, vegetables and meat. Villagers have even begun to treat the shop as a marketplace, bringing in allotment and garden produce to be sold inside.

Both shops have quickly become community hubs, too, fulfilling roles somewhere between social venues and community care services.

‘The shop is a meeting place for the local community, a place to talk and gossip,’ explains Younger. ‘One day, when one of our residents failed to collect her pension from the post office, the staff took it round to her house. They found she’d fallen down the stairs.’

Both Younger and Hope-Mason are quick to acknowledge the importance of volunteers. Although the managers are paid, most other staff give their time freely. Ropley has a roster of 35 adults and 40 children, and manager Lisa Murphy has turned the volunteer system into a form of work experience, with children learning everything from ordering to working the till.

Thinking outside the postbox

It would be easy to dismiss these as happy but isolated stories, idiosyncratic relics of prewar, privet hedge middle England, but West Meon and Ropley are just two of 170 village shops that the ViRSA programme has helped to make the transition from failing private businesses to thriving community-owned enterprises.

And there’s nothing old-fashioned about either establishment. Step through the West Meon shop and you find yourself in a soon-to-be-opened internet cafe, complete with coffee bar and garden terrace. By offering youngsters free internet use on Saturdays, the shop’s committee intends to provide an IT training service for older customers. Younger hopes small-scale IT initiatives will also be fostered.

The Ropley post office thrives on the fact that it caters to the village’s growing network of online businesses, which require not only parcel services but also business banking.

‘We try to operate above and beyond what is required of us by the Post Office,’ says Murphy. ‘We open for longer than required to, take parcels out of hours and even deliver. I know 95 per cent of our customers by name.’

Neither Younger nor Hope-Mason pretend that setting up community-owned shops is easy. The Ropley shop had to contend with crippling health and safety compliance costs, and found it hard to strike a balance between pricier local produce and staple essentials such as baked beans and loo roll. In West Meon, the shop committee discovered true shareholder democracy brought its own problems.

‘Some people thought we were too upmarket, others too downmarket,’ Younger says. ‘The concept of a community shop was also difficult to explain – people thought I was doing rather well out of it, until I explained I was actually out of pocket and wouldn’t see that money back!’ The pride that both communities feel in the shops is self-evident to any visitor. Both clubbed together to prove that not only was a post office service financially viable, but also a fully fitted shop with spin-off facilities. With achievement comes modesty, however.

‘It’s nothing too grand, but we’re proud of it,’ says Younger. ‘It’s small but meaningful.’

For more information on community owned shops, visit http://www.plunkett.co.uk/whatwedo/rcs/ruralcommunityshops.c
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Mark Anslow is the Ecologist’s senior reporter

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2008

 

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