Plunkett rallies retail co-ops to support rural community business

Midcounties, Central, Southern, Radstock, the Co-op Group and Co-operatives UK are among the partners in the venture

The multiple challenges facing UK businesses – such as inflation, rising energy costs and skills gaps – are especially acute for co-ops and community businesses operating in rural areas, prompting Plunkett Foundation to launch a new support network.

Launched in 1919 by Sir Horace Plunkett – who had spent decades helping to build the co-op sector in rural Ireland – the charity represents 10% of all independent co-operatives in the UK and provides free, bespoke business advice to rural communities looking to save or set up and run a community-owned business, including village shops or pubs. 

With rural businesses facing tough times, the Plunkett Foundation has convened a network of co-op retail societies to share resources and expertise with the community business network. Inspired by principle 6 (co-operation among co-ops), Plunkett asked the retail co-ops to explore ways to transfer expertise between large and small co-ops.

The network has three core aims: to raise an annual financial contribution towards Plunkett’s free community business service; to utilise retail co-ops’ knowledge, expertise and networks for the benefit of smaller community-owned businesses; and explore practical ways of supporting community-owned businesses together or independently.

This is welcome news for Plunkett’s members. “Our Better Business research in 2023 identified the highest level of concern we have ever seen within Plunkett’s membership – with 32% being ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about their future,” says CEO James Alcock, citing inflation and rising energy costs as two of the biggest challenges. “And then of course there are the everyday challenges of finding staff and volunteers, continually evolving the businesses and the services they offer, and identifying banks that understand the co-operative model and are willing to work with them.”

Barkers of Huby

 But, he adds, there is positive news too. “Despite several very difficult trading years, we have not seen any real increase in the number of closures of rural community-owned co-operatives, and we are still celebrating five-year survival rates of 99% and 20+ year survival rates of 92%. There is also reason for optimism with 67% of our members feeling confident about the future, and over 58% of respondents rationalising their optimism as a result of being community-owned and integrated within their local community.”

Being small, independent and geographically remote makes operating in a rural location more challenging and expensive – and there is also a need to be agile. “It can be difficult for one business to tailor to the tastes of a diverse group of people, incomes and backgrounds living in a small locality,” says Alcock, “and with the ability to access goods and services online, this means rural organisations are continually evolving and innovating. It requires a lot of effort.”

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But this effort is vital: without rural community-owned co-operatives, warns Alcock, “there would likely be no other options for providing vital services on which people depend – especially people on lower incomes, or with mobility or health issues”. This would see rural areas become less accessible and practical for the people living there.

Rural community-owned co-operatives are so successful because “they have the input from so many local people who bring a diversity of experience, skills and knowledge,” adds Alcock. “Combined, this leads to innovation on the provision of services and products and experiences that people want and need.”

The issue is, however, that these groups often lack the specific industry knowledge of those particular businesses – be it a village shop or a pub, woodland or farm.

 “By partnering with some of the bigger co-operatives across the UK we are hoping to access those industry-based skills, knowledge, contacts and experiences,” says Alcock. “As there is not an issue of competition, it is simply putting principle 6 into action – co-operatives working with co-operatives.”

Hamptead Norreys Community Shop

The partnership – which formally launched at the end of 2023 but has been in the pipeline for several years – intends to hold three meetings a year, where attendees will share their successes and challenges, with the hope that collective initiatives may emerge, such as joint communications which raise the profile of the co-op model, or policy and research activity. 

Plunkett has a tradition of working with partners from all sectors, and for this initiative it is supporting Cooperative Futures’ ambition to support 50 new co-ops in the Midcounties trading area. Other members of the network include Midcounties, Central, Southern, Radstock, the Co-op Group and Co-operatives UK. 

Gemma Lacey, people and sustainability director at Southern Co-op, said the organisation “welcomes the opportunity, working in partnership with the Plunkett Foundation and other co-operatives, to harness our shared resources, expertise and experience to help the Foundation grow the reach and impact of its free and bespoke community business service.  Together we hope to build a thriving network of rural community businesses, that demonstrates the power of the co-operative model and collaborative working in action.”

“The co-operative movement as a whole benefits when co-operatives collaborate and work together towards common goals,” adds Don Morris, CEO of Radstock Co-operative and former chair of Co-operatives UK. 

“By joining forces with Plunkett and the wider co-operative network, we will be able to successfully demonstrate our commitment to principle 6. The goal is to work together through local, national, regional, and international structures to serve members more effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement.”

“In the past, Radstock has made efforts to connect with local co-operatives, but it seems that the conversations and project initiatives did not reach their full potential. By utilising signposting, expert guidance, and regular communication, we hope to see these promising initiatives flourish and grow. By actively engaging with Plunkett and the wider co-operative network, rural co-operatives will have access to resources, support and guidance that can help them overcome any hurdles and make these co-operative partnerships more successful.” 

Participation remains open and Plunkett welcomes all conversations with UK co-operators with an interest in supporting this initiative.