James is passionate about rural issues and is an active member of a number of national partnerships and alliances that seek to influence public policy for the good of communities. Prior to joining Plunkett in 2007 he worked in the rural affordable housing sector and is now Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.
How did you get involved in Plunkett?
Having grown up and always lived in the countryside, being part of a rural community has always been important to me. I’ve experienced first-hand the gradual decline of village services, the closure of the village shop, the bank, post office, then the market or the very last pub and ultimately the loss of community spirit that follows. Both my degree and research masters were focused on rural change – and in particular understanding issues relating to rural poverty, isolation and exclusion. One of my early roles was working for a rural community council, and whilst there we partnered with Plunkett Foundation on a pilot programme supporting community owned food businesses. From that point, I became totally committed to the co-operative values these businesses adopt, and remain in awe of the communities that take that first step to take control of the issues they are facing. I watched Plunkett from afar until a perfect project management role for me became available, and I applied and joined the team. That was 16 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
What does a typical day for you involve?
There is no such thing as a typical day at Plunkett – the variety is probably why I’ve been working for the organisation for so long! Every day brings a unique challenge, a different solution, a new potential partner, and new innovation from the communities we work with. I love working in our office with the Plunkett team – they are equally passionate about what they do, and it’s such a creative environment to be in. Equally, I love the opportunity to visit community businesses throughout the UK. They are so inspiring to visit and gain perspective on what more Plunkett can be doing to help.
How does community ownership work in terms of restoring a sense of place to communities?
Plunkett works with many chocolate box villages, but we also work in peri-urban areas, post-industrial villages, brand new settlements and some of the most remote communities in the UK. Whatever they look like and wherever they are, they are dealing with many of the same challenges – the loss of vital services, the erosion of community, the feeling of being left behind. Of all the groups we’ve supported (over 800) and whatever type of community business it is, we’ve seen how they bring diverse groups of people together and identify what is important to them. No two community-businesses are completely the same but they all share the ethos of working together for the benefit of all – and in particular, seek to support those most vulnerable in their community. They are rightly proud of saving the essential services they offer, but also the employment, training and volunteering opportunities they provide, as well as the new friendships and support networks they have established, the vital contributions to the local economy they make through the supply chain and the positive impact to the environment through sustainable and ethical purchasing.
After Covid-19 comes the crisis of rising costs for businesses and consumers – how is the community business sector placed to cope with this, and to help those in need?
We’re very proud of the fact that the survival rates of community businesses are exceptionally high, 99.3% for community pubs and 92.5% for shops (*Compared to 44% for SMEs from the Office of National Statistics), and we believe that this is partly due to the hard work and determination of the community groups and their volunteers. When you’ve worked so hard to save a business you remain adaptable and responsive to your community’s and your customer’s needs. As their needs change so do yours and during the pandemic we saw many businesses stepping up to the task of helping the most vulnerable in their communities – offering home delivery, free hot meals, low cost food parcels and broadening their services, including online ordering, pubs opening daytime shops, cafes or postal services and developing activities to help the wellbeing of their community.
Additionally Plunkett’s role in providing expert business advice and training to groups, plus the opportunity for peer networking, encourages community businesses to follow best legal, financial and business practice making them more resilient to change. Their innate altruism extends to supporting each other in times of challenge.
How can government help more to develop the community business sector?
The Community Ownership Fund is a major boost to the sector – and we’d love to see more communities stepping forward to access the funding available. In addition to this many groups need very early stage support to make their vision and project a compelling and robust case for funding and we believe providing ‘early stage’ funding would continue to transform the sector but also significantly increase the capacity of the Community Ownership Fund to deliver for the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda.
Additionally, we’re campaigning for communities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to have a Right To Buy, to allow communities first refusal on a registered building when they come up for sale. Faced with escalating property prices many groups lose buildings and spaces that could be used to transform their community and ensure it is able to thrive in future.
What would you like to see next for the sector?
Recent years have seen fantastic growth of the community business sector – especially community pubs – we feel this momentum will continue as communities experience growing confidence in their ability to take ownership of the places they love and help their rural villages to thrive. Our recent research into ‘cold spots’ and urban community pubs identifies huge opportunities for growth, particularly in the North East, West Midlands, Scotland and Wales and we see no reason why the network of community-businesses shouldn’t grow from 800 to 8,000!
I’d also love to see the sector receive the recognition it deserves for the phenomenal difference it makes to rural and community lives. Community businesses really do have the power to transform communities and improve the wellbeing of all those they serve.