Village co-operative a hit on the radio

After months of anticipation, the villagers of Ambridge in BBC Radio 4’s The Archers have celebrated the opening of their community-owned shop.

In setting up their own shop, they have followed a path chosen by an increasing number of rural communities across the UK, many of whom are so empowered by their success that they’re going on to create more community-owned enterprises such as pubs, local food schemes and broadband services.

The storyline on The Archers, which the Plunkett Foundation has been advising on, began in October in a way that would be familiar to many rural communities. 

The shop owner, Peggy Woolley, could no longer afford to run the shop and announced to villagers — to their great dismay — that the shop would be closing. The community decided not to take the threat of closure lying down and set about raising funds for a community-owned shop.

According to The Archers’ editor Vanessa Whitburn, the community shop storyline has proved a popular one with listeners, many of whom identify with the importance of keeping a village shop open in a rural community.

Community-ownership now saves around ten per cent of village shop closures and is the approach that rural communities are turning to first when looking to save their village shop from the threat of closure. Plunkett’s Village CORE Programme was launched in 2006 as a three-year support programme for community-owned shops but has been extended for a further three years to meet demand.

The programme is managed by Plunkett in partnership with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Co-operative and Community Finance and is supported by the LankellyChase Foundation. It provides financial start-up packages and advisory support to communities looking to set up a community-owned rural shop. 

There are now 237 community-owned shops in the UK with 38 opening in 2009 alone. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on the needs of the community which sets them up. Some (as is the case in Ambridge) are in previous shop premises while others are based in churches, pub buildings, village halls and portacabins.

Ambridge ‘received’ support from the Village CORE Programme, and had it been a real shop it would have been the 50th new shop to be supported under the programme. That distinction actually now belongs to Kirdford, West Sussex, which opened three days after Ambridge.

The community-owned shop storyline in The Archers has mirrored the journey taken by an increasing number of rural communities across the UK in setting up and running community-owned services. 

We hope that for Ambridge, this is just the start as we have found that after communities go through the process of setting up and running a community-owned shop they then apply this approach to a range of other challenges they are facing. Our question is what is next for Ambridge?

Only time will tell whether the residents of Ambridge set up more community-owned enterprises to improve village life, but, as villages across the UK are discovering, community enterprise can provide a sustainable solution to many of the issues affecting them such as access to public transport, childcare facilities, broadband and local food. The possibilities for community enterprise to meet the needs of villages such as Ambridge are endless.

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