How the Plunkett Foundation and the Prince's Countryside Fund brought Broadwindsor back to life
PUBLISHED: 12:09 07 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:09 07 May 2014
With support from the Plunkett Foundation and the Prince’s Countryside Fund Broadwindsor Community Stores is about to celebrate its first year in business and with an accounts book in the black
When Broadwindsor faced the closure of their village shop, an establishment which had first opened its doors for business more than 100 years ago, an army of local volunteers stepped forward to help keep a retail heart alive within their west Dorset village.
With village shops closing at a rate of 400 per year across the country, Broadwindsor’s residents were determined that their village would not become the latest in a long line of gloomy statistics. However the future of the village’s only shop was looking very bleak indeed as Fraser Hughes, chairman of the Broadwindsor Community Stores committee, explains. “The owner had been looking to sell the business for four years, but no one had come forward to take it on. So eventually it closed. However over 90 per cent of people in the village wanted the shop to reopen, so we decided as a community that we would buy it.”
It just so happened that the drafting of the Parish Plan coincided with the shop’s demise and so a group of enthusiastic volunteers were quickly assembled. Initially they turned to the Plunkett Foundation for guidance. Established in 1919, the Foundation helps predominantly rural communities to set up and run community-owned shops, co-operative pubs and community food enterprises, so they had a wealth of experience to share.
Taking advice from the Plunkett Foundation the group began looking into the finer details of what running a community shop entailed. “Making up the committee we had a lawyer, a project manager for London Transport and a guy who was an ex finance advisor. Then there was our volunteer co-ordinator Mandy Crane who had lived in the village for a great number of years and knew it inside out,” explains Fraser. “But most of us knew nothing at all about what it takes to actually run a shop. The Plunkett Foundation have been extremely generous throughout, and offered a lot us of guidance and support.”
The next issue was to find a location for the shop. Sadly an agreement couldn’t be reached over the former shop premises, but then another property within the village became available. Lovingly known as TOTE (The Old Telephone Exchange) the small rectangular building had been home to a small printing company who needed to expand. “It came at the opportune time,” says Fraser. “And although it would need some work to turn it into shop premises, it was just the sort of thing we were looking for.”
With the help of a grant of almost £30,000 from the Chalk and Cheese Local Action Group the team of volunteers set about selling shares in the soon-to-open shop. This in turn raised a further £33,000 in just eight weeks. Fraser believes that keeping the village involved in the project from the start has really helped with the success of project. “There are now 220 share holders in and around the village, each share was a value of £5 but you only get one vote at the AGM.”
In addition the group was also awarded a small grant from the Prince’s Countryside Fund to help them do some research about what makes a successful village shop. “This grant enabled us to visit different community stores in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire,” Fraser reveals. “We went to about 15 in total and we were able to see all the different ways the shops operated and the till systems, as well as find out how they worked with their volunteers. We also needed to know what sold and what didn’t sell, and what sort of margins they made; community shops are very open with each other with regards to their profits, which you wouldn’t normally expect from other retail businesses.
“What we did notice was that every community shop was different – their premises, the community they are in and so on, it all very much depends on what the community wants. However one thing that remained the same throughout is that everyone had such great pride for their village shop and I think that is what makes so many of them successful.”
Brining their findings back with them, the team set about transforming TOTE to become a new hub of village enterprise. “It was just an empty shell at this point,” recalls Fraser. “We had to build an office at the back and install all the shelving and retail units. We had a soft opening in early March 2013, followed by a grand opening a month later on 6 April, which was attended by West Dorset MP Oliver Letwin. We also asked children at the local school to design posters for our opening. The designer of the winning poster came to officially open the shop with Mr Letwin – we wanted to involve all of the community.”
Keeping the community involved from the very outset seems to have paid off. The first six months of trading alone exceeding expectations with a turnover of £100,000 and over 26,500 transactions. The team was also invited, as one of only two community shops from across the entire country, to a special reception at Clarence House to meet HRH Prince Charles and share the story of their success. They also won People’s Project Award at last year’s Dorset Village Awards.
However, as Fraser recalls, there was some trepidation when they opened for business. “The old village shop had been closed for 19 months by the time we reopened. So we didn’t know if people would still want to shop locally or how much trade we were going to get. But at the end of our first year we are modestly profitable, and that profit has been ploughed back into the stores, buying further fixtures and fittings and fittings.”
The shop currently carries over 1800 lines and uses some 26 local suppliers. “We are set up to be a community store, and by designed we wanted to keep it very local. So 30 per cent of our stock is sourced within 30 miles. We sell meats from Sherborne and Maydown Farm in Burton Bradstock, as well as fish from Mere Fish Farm. We try to give people a reason to come in to our shop and buy local.”
The shop also stocks a number of budget lines alongside some of the more artisan products, so there is something for everyone who comes in. “Price wise for a village store I think we are very competitive,” says Fraser. “Before Christmas I went to Superdrug in Bridport to buy some deodorant. It was on their shelves for £3.29. It was the same price in Boots so I bought it. The next day I came back to the stores and found that we were selling it for £2.99! If I had shopped locally, I could have saved myself some money.”
Keeping the community shop’s doors open for 67 hours each week is a team of dedicated volunteers overseen by volunteer co-ordinator Mandy Crane. “We have in excess of 40 volunteers and we make sure that two people are on each shift, as well as our shop manager Sue Williams.” she explains. Volunteers sign up for as many two hour shifts within a week as they can do. “For the first six months I was constantly ringing around asking people to come in and put their names down for shifts, but now people put their names down without being asked. We rarely have staffing issues.”
But it’s not just working with the village community that has lead to the store’s success. At Christmas they joined forces with neighbouring Thornecombe Village Shop to get a better deal on Christmas goodies. “We both drew up a list of what we wanted and then split it between us. This gave us a bit more buying power,” explains Mandy. “We have just done the same thing for Easter.”
James Alcock, Head of Frontline at Plunkett said that the Foundation was already busy working with a further 90 communities across the country in a bid to halt the decline of village stores. “There are currently 319 community-owned shops trading in the UK,” says James. “It is a hugely successful model – over the past 25 years, only 15 have ever closed, giving them around a 96 per cent success rate.
“Community shops don’t just provide the essential goods that rural residents need - saving them from driving many miles or relying intermittent public transport – they also act as vital social hubs. Community shops have been proven to reduce isolation, particularly for older residents, and they make up part of the lifeline for rural survival. Increasing numbers of people are realising the potential of community ownership. As more spring up, more people can see how it would work for them. Lack of funding and continued closure of small businesses means the community is stepping in to save what is important to them.”
Fraser adds, that in his opinion, a store’s success must reflect the community’s delight with what the volunteers had achieved. “Everybody is very pleased with the shop, they think it’s wonderful,” he said. “What we have discovered during this community project is that people, by nature, are very helpful. If you put out a request for help, nine times out of ten people come forward eager to offer their services.”
No wonder one of shop’s volunteers described this remarkable community project as “bringing the village back to life.”
The Plunkett Foundation
The Plunkett Foundation has been helping rural communities through co-operatives and community-ownership to take control of the issues affecting them since 1919. The foundation helps predominantly rural communities to set up and run community-owned shops, co-operative pubs and community food enterprises as well as advocating and raising awareness amongst policy makers, support organisations and rural communities themselves of the ability of rural communities to take control through co-operation and community-ownership of the issues affecting them. For more details visit plunkett.co.uk or call 01993 810730.
Investing in the countryside
The Prince’s Countryside Fund announces investment of £575,000 in projects supporting the British countryside
The Prince’s Countryside Fund, a charity which strives to secure a sustainable future for the British countryside and wider rural economy, has announced an investment of over £575,000 in 12 valuable rural projects across the UK.
Having already contributed £3.3million in grants in the three years since its inception, the latest round of funding from The Prince’s Countryside Fund is being allocated to projects and organisations which address five key issues facing rural Britain; low farming incomes, rural isolation, lack of access to training, decline of rural communities and disconnect with the countryside. Two of the projects receiving help are included here.
Victoria Elms, Manager at The Prince’s Countryside Fund, explains: ‘These grants will support the people, organisations and communities working tirelessly to preserve and ensure the long term sustainability of British farming, agriculture and the wider rural economy. With the help of our admirable supporting companies, it’s a great achievement for The Prince’s Countryside Fund to be able to support so many excellent projects which collectively will benefit over 64,000 people
‘The countryside is one our greatest assets, with 70% of our drinking water coming from the UK’s upland areas and 60% of the UK’s food being grown domestically. In the next 50 years we will have to produce more food than we have in the last 10,000, and we hope that educating children in sustainable food and drink production, giving young people the skills and training needed to continue rural careers and investing in the viability of farm businesses will go a long way to achieving that.’
Since 2010, The Prince’s Countryside Fund has given grants to support 127 rural communities by improving service provision, 3,006 farm businesses through funding projects that work directly with farmers to improve efficiency and profitability and 792 rural enterprises through supporting innovative rural business projects.
2,492 young people have benefitted from projects offering training opportunities and 18,000 children will be educated in food and farming in a sustainable countryside.
Where the grants go
Fresh Start (Addresses: Lack of access to training) £50,000
Fresh Start was set up in 2004 to help find ways for new entrants to start up business in land based sectors and successfully developed and trialled specialist pig, dairy and upland academies with great results. The grant allows them to deliver a further two dairy academies, four upland academies, two pig academies and the development of two more sector specific academies such as lowland beef and sheep farming and commercial horticulture. Between 198 and 280 people will benefit.
FACE - Farming & Countryside Education (Addresses: Disconnect with the countryside) £150,000
The aim of FACE is to educate children and young people about food and farming in a sustainable countryside. Representing 13,250 teachers and 129 farmers it is a nationwide charity. FACE have been awarded an additional grant of £150,000 over a two year period to extend the ‘Countryside Matters’ programme, through farm visits or school based activity such as growing or cooking fresh food. In total 150 schools and 9,000 young people in areas of economic disadvantage will benefit.
The public can make a donation online at Virgin Giving at the Post Office or by Text. Text PCF to 70300 and a £3 donation will be made to The Prince’s Countryside Fund.