Rural communities take care of business

Social enterprises are increasingly being developed by rural communities to take control of the issues affecting them, according to a report from the Plunkett Foundation commissioned by the...

Social enterprises are increasingly being developed by rural communities to take control of the issues affecting them, according to a report from the Plunkett Foundation commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The Review of Rural Social Enterprise in England is the first systematic review of the many various forms of community led social enterprise across rural England and the impact they have on rural communities.

Peter Couchman, Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation, said: “The Review of Rural Social Enterprise in England has found that, despite the challenges facing rural areas, communities are responding through a range of community led social enterprises.

“Rural social enterprises come in many forms — a community setting up a community-owned shop, community food enterprises, community land trusts for affordable housing, development trusts, community broadband enterprises and community transport enterprises are just some examples.”

Added Mr Couchman: “By looking across all the different types of rural social enterprise for the first time, this research has provided a greater understanding of how rural social enterprises operate and the impact they have on their communities.”

The report was commissioned by the Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra and was supported by the Office for Civil Society within the Cabinet Office.

In the report Mr Couchman argues that "rural communities are facing a number of challenges". He says: "Some public and private services are being withdrawn, which can often exacerbate issues of access to services in these areas to a greater extent than urban areas, house prices are often higher which can lead to some local people being priced out of the market and the cost of living is increasing which has impacts in both rural and urban areas.

"Despite these challenges, social enterprises in rural communities are playing an increasingly prominent role in providing services to rural communities where public and private sector have failed.

"The purpose was to find out the range of economic, social and environmental impacts that social enterprises generate in rural communities and how they do this. It is clear that despite recent success, there is a great deal of pressure on existing social enterprises and rural communities to use social enterprise approaches to address the challenges that they are facing in a sustainable way."

On co-operatives, the report concludes that the movement is an important and growing part of the UK economy. It says that the rural co-operative economy is diverse, but five types of the rural co-operative economy dominate.

Agricultural co-operatives are the largest sector of the rural co-operative economy both by number and by scale. Other important types include community-owned village shops, fishing co-operatives, housing co-operatives and Country Markets.

Types of co-operatives exist in different numbers across English regions and a range of factors are behind this. This includes the level of help and support for communities and businesses to develop co-operatives that is available, how visible a co-operative type is in a location as this affects the level of awareness and understanding within rural communities and the size of a community as many co-operatives forms like community-owned shops operate in communities where other forms of business has failed.

While characteristics of different regions and communities will inevitably lead to different numbers of co-operatives in various areas it is important to consider the need to 'level the playing field' by making co-operative enterprise development help and support more consistently available across England.

Financially and in terms of scale co-operative enterprises are extremely diverse ranging from micro enterprises to multi billion pound businesses. This diversity is a strength of the co-operative economy in the UK. In addition there are a number of examples of smaller co-operatives and new and emerging types of cooperatives that may be increasingly important sectors of the co-operative economy in future years.

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