Plunkett has recently released its Vision for a Covid-19 Rural Recovery – which calls on the government to create “meaningful opportunities” for community-led economies.
It says policy makers should listen to the experiences of communities, and wants more direct investment into the community business sector and the wider infrastructure to support community-led change.
The charity, which supports rural community business, says the sector has shown “strength and resourcefulness” during lockdown, providing services to people living in their areas, some of them among the most vulnerable.
Mr Alcock said: “The crisis of Covid-19 has been a massive challenge for everyone, including rural communities. Now is the opportunity to turn this crisis into something positive, we don’t just want to rebuild the rural economy – we want to ensure it is stronger, more vibrant and more resilient than ever before.
“Community owned and run businesses have been at the forefront of the crisis response, and I have witnessed first-hand the efforts and dedication of volunteers to make sure they could be the lifeline that their communities needed. We have been listening to our members throughout the crisis, and supply chains have been one of the many challenges.
“So often the solution has been to find new, locally sourced products to fill the gaps. This has opened up new avenues – and we are committing ourselves to ensure this re-localisation can continue and expand. This is an ambitious vision, and for the aspirations that we are setting out today to be achieved we will need likeminded partner organisations to work with us and for the government to show willing and back this rural renaissance.”
Plunkett argues that an emphasis on localised supply chains can also lead to positive environmental impacts.
Mr Alcock added: “There are many environmentally friendly schemes that community businesses have promoted such as community composting, community energy and growing projects. Now is the time to launch new green initiatives.”
Another area of focus for Plunkett will be boosting employment and training opportunities and enhancing the use of digital technologies in rural areas. While the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in a mobilisation of volunteers, Plunkett wants to ensure the momentum is not lost.
Mr Alcock said: “Rural communities have achieved so much in these challenging times and provided their own solutions. We now need growth and national investment at a national level to ensure the opportunities that are before us and the wave of community spirit that we have witnessed can be harnessed to ensure a bright and sustainable future for the rural economy.”
The vision follows the recent relesase of Ripple Effect, a report Plunkett created with the Co-op Group, which warns that rural locations lacking facilities such as pubs, restaurants and shops – including those unable to re-open safely after 4 July – could see a negative shift in residents’ general wellbeing.
Plunkett says remote and rural areas which maintain their social spaces through community-ownership experience improved interaction, positivity and engagement.
The report also suggests these business models could be among the most resilient: 67% of community pubs supported by Plunkett continued to trade in some capacity throughout May and June compared to just 28% from the wider pub industry.
The Ripple Effect argues that, as well as maintaining a valuable asset or service, these shared ventures can help address inequality, loneliness, wellbeing, connectivity, work and training.
James Alcock, Plunkett’s chief executive, said: “Keeping people connected is a crucial element to maintaining good mental wellbeing in rural areas, where challenges such as unemployment and deprivation are very real.
“Community-owned and run businesses have shown themselves to be innovative and adaptable during the Covid-19 crisis – involving many people across diverse communities.
“As the UK heads into an uncertain economic future, our report shows that their role to provide employment, training, contributing to an equal society and keeping people connected is needed now more than ever.”
Co-op Group CEO Steve Murrells said: “Co-operative business models have been successful for hundreds of years. Community-owned businesses have a critical role to play in their local economy and a community’s wellbeing – we urge the government not to overlook their potential as they seek to rebuild the UK post Covid, especially in more remote areas.”