North East villagers show their entrepreneurial spirit

TWO years ago Prime Minister David Cameron "officially" unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit of rural communities with the unveiling of his government's idea for a Big Society.

From left: Margaret Fay, Chris Jones, Rod Jones and John Probert toast the success of the Rookhope Inn
From left: Margaret Fay, Chris Jones, Rod Jones and John Probert toast the success of the Rookhope Inn

TWO years ago Prime Minister David Cameron "officially" unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit of rural communities with the unveiling of his government's idea for a Big Society.

The concept was rolled out across England in July 2010 to develop and showcase new projects to help people come together in their neighbourhoods and to help the community.

However, years before Cameron announced his big idea, shops and pubs in some of the North East’s most far-flung villages were already being successfully run by volunteers.

In 2002, the Rookhope Inn, perched 1,200 feet above sea level in Weardale, County Durham, was resurrected by the Sunderland-based charity St Aidan’s Community Trust. The pub had become a popular focus for the community since it reopened two years after being was shut down due to lack of trade.

The blueprint for the community pub came from a booklet by The Countryside Agency – The Pub is the Hub – with a foreword by Prince Charles.

Although the venture was non-profit making, the community in charge of the business could not afford to make a loss. Hard work and a desire to keep a dying rural tradition alive ensured any surplus money was ploughed back into the pub or into the local community.

The work of Trevor Dunn at his community pub the Diamond Inn at Butterknowle, near Bishop Auckland, County Durham, was highlighted by the Prince of Wales in the booklet.

Dunn had listened to complaints from regulars about the closure of the local post office and opened one himself inside the Diamond Inn and his contribution to well-being of the community was highly commended by Prince Charles himself.

And seven years later, when the effects of the credit crunch drifted from the city into the country, The Bridge Inn, in Middleton-in-Teesdale, County Durham, was on the verge of closing its doors for the last time.

But, within the walls of the pub – which patrons had found to be scarcely open during usual drinking times – a group of villagers formulated a plan which would save the lifeblood of the village’s community.

And so the industrious group, led by director Chris Jones, created a not-for-profit trust and took over their favourite meeting place.

Not only did the trust restore normal opening hours for its loyal customer base, but it also become a meeting centre for businesses and groups in the village.

The trust, which was set up on the back of social enterprise funding, was looking for ways to generate extra revenue streams to strengthen its position amid volatile times for customer-facing businesses and promptly re-opened their second pub, The Grey Bull in Stanhope, County Durham.

The scheme inevitably won the backing of Camra – the campaign group for real ale and the brewing industry – which hoped to see the County Durham trust’s model copied across the country.

According to the Plunkett Foundation, which promotes and supports co-operatives and social enterprises in rural communities worldwide, the North East set the benchmark for community-run pubs in England.

Katherine Darling, spokesperson for the foundation, said: “Community-run pubs is a developing sector compared to our plethora of community-run shops which are well established in the south east and south west of the country.

“However, the North East has always led the way with the community takeover of pubs, and we have no definite answer as to why this is. I can only assume that rural pubs are deemed important to the region’s social and cultural heritage as there are no examples of community-run pubs in the south of England as yet.”

The UK government reportedly plans to unlock £78bn in charitable assets to roll out big society ideas and hand over up to 25% of public service contracts to the private and voluntary sector.

Last year, the Plunkett Foundation committed around £650,000 of support to community-owned shops, of which there are three in the region.

At the start of 2011 there were 251 community shops trading in England and at the close of the year, this figure stood at 271. This includes 19 brand new shops, plus four that were already open but previously unknown to Plunkett.

The south east of England saw the greatest level of growth with seven new shops, followed by the south west with five.

Darling said that community shop growth is clearly strongest in the south west followed by the south east, where the North East is still lagging behind.

She said: “It is difficult to explain all of the socioeconomic reasons why community shops are being set up predominantly in the south, but it is likely that this clustering effect is a result of rural communities looking over the garden fence and being inspired by their neighbouring communities. This is not surprising since communities rarely embark on a community shop project without visiting other shops first, and will lean significantly on those visited whilst they are in development for advice and support.

“A community enterprise relies on different kinds of skills from all its volunteers, be that in marketing, business or finance.

“The south has a high concentration of retired chief executives and marketing directors who can bring a lot to the table when a community comes to run a business like a shop.

“Communities in the south west and south east subsequently have more support available to them than those in other regions; however, since the establishment of the Community Shops Network, it is hoped that communities across other regions will have greater access to support and advice from existing shops.

“When a service closes down the community needs to know they have the power to save it themselves.”

Of the handful of community-run shops in the region, which include those in Linton Colliery, near Morpeth and Allenheads, north of Weardale, perhaps the biggest success story is a North Tyne village shop that was saved from closure three years ago.

Humshaugh Village Shop has been run by the community since November 1, 2009, but the campaign to save it began back in July 2008.

The shop used to have a Post Office counter run by sub-postmaster Rob Gray. He and his wife Pat were planning to sell up and retire but then the Post Office announced that it planned to close Humshaugh’s counter as part of its nationwide review.

Despite a fiercely fought protest by villagers, by 2009 the Post Office was no more and the shop owners were faced with the very real dilemma of trying to sell their business without the benefit of a Post Office income. When no buyers came forward, a committee of volunteers formed their own limited company called Humshaugh Community Ventures and successfully raised £35,000 from various funding organisations to enable the community to buy and run the shop.

The shop, which has a team of 40 dedicated volunteers, recently won the regional champions title for Best Village Shop at the Countryside Alliance awards for the second year on the trot.

Director of Humshaugh Community Ventures, Steve Robins, said: “Because of our high profile and our embarrassing habit of picking up awards, we are constantly being asked for advice from potential community shops in the region.

“Some of them, when they find out what a commitment it is, don’t follow it through. Some just haven’t been able to muster the number of volunteers that we’ve managed to recruit.

“This week our chairman, Dick Moules, is addressing workshops at a national Plunkett Foundation conference in Birmingham. His topics are ‘What can you do for your community and what can they do for you?’ and ‘Managing volunteers – making the most of a valuable resource’. So that just goes to show what progress we’ve made since opening the door of our tiny shop on November 1 2009.”

In total Plunkett is working with 149 communities helping them to explore setting up a community shop.

The £5.3m Village SOS campaign, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, has also played its part in raising awareness of community shops. It saw six television programmes broadcast on prime time BBC, together with 13 regional events and a competition which took place in 2011.

With only eight out of 259 community shops across the country ever having closed, the 97% survival rate of community shops presents a very positive picture for the future resilience of the community shop sector.

This survival rate compares positively with estimations for UK businesses nationally which, according to the Office for National Statistics, are estimated to have a five-year survival rate of 47%.

HUMSHAUGH VILLAGE SHOP, NORTHUMBERLAND

THREE years ago, villagers in Humshaugh, near Hexham, clubbed together to save their last village shop from closure.

A question mark hung over the future of the village store after a determined local campaign failed to save its post office counter.

Owners Pat and Rob Gray were looking to retire but there were widespread fears that the store would close too – leaving villagers facing a six-mile trip to do their shopping.

When no buyers came forward a committee of volunteers was formed called Humshaugh Community Ventures, who campaigned for money from various funding organisations.

The spirited campaign successfully raised £35,000 and on November 1 2009 the village shop was opened by volunteers for the first time.

In May and June the following year, the shop moved to the back room of Humshaugh's local pub, The Crown Inn, while the store underwent a major re-fit.

It re-opened in June and was officially unveiled on August 7 by multi-millionaire businessman, Graham Wylie, who until November 2010 lived at nearby Chesters.

More than 40 volunteers have since been recruited and trained to run the shop on a daily basis. Last year, the shop generated more than £15,000 in profits, which has been used to fund other projects in the village.

Humshaugh Community Ventures also stepped in to save the village's Crown Inn pub from possible closure, taking over and running the business while a long-term buyer was found.

Director of Humshaugh Community Ventures, Steve Robins, said: “The profits from the shop have been ploughed into a variety of projects in the village. We also started a heating oil price guide service, which rapidly developed into a village oil-buying consortium. There's now talk of a village electric car, a community orchard as well as village beehives.

"Everyone involved will tell you that it can be hard work but they'll also tell you that it's very enjoyable and gives you a nice, warm glow.

"Ours isn't a traditional business model but it works very well for us and will almost certainly work for other North East communities too."

For the second year, the shop has won the regional champions title for Best Village Shop/Post Office – in the prestigious Countryside Alliance awards and was only narrowly pipped at the post for the top national award by Ludwell Post Office stores in Dorset. There are also plans for a community orchard and in the long term, the shop could move to larger premises.

KIELDER PETROL STATION, NORTHUMBERLAND

VILLAGERS in Kielder can fill their cars up at the area’s only petrol station thanks to volunteers.

The reopening of the petrol station in Kielder, Northumberland, last month (March) means its 180 residents, hundreds of thousands of tourists and rural businesses no longer need to complete a round trip of at least 35 miles for fuel.

The newly opened un-staffed station, run by a local community group, is thought to be the only one of its kind in England.

Tom Grimwood, chair of Kielder Limited, the volunteer-run community charity that will manage the station, said: "We’ve been on such a journey fighting to reopen the station since it closed in 2008 and the hard work has paid off – it’s a dream come true."

Steve Webb, owner of Kielder Village Store and Post Office said: "The petrol station has closed and reopened twice in the past.

"Because of the overheads it had, the business was non-viable and it had to close.

"This time it won’t be run as a business, so we don’t need to see a profit.

"We are now able to offer the local resident, business or visitor as seven day a week fuel supply.

Webb says it has been a tough four years.

"We’ve had tourists run out of petrol and villagers have had to run out with their fuel cannisters and see them on their way," he said.

"This new facility will most certainly change our lives."

The petrol station is not staffed so customers pay by credit or debit card prior to filling up. It is open for fuel from 7am to 7pm – with longer opening hours in the summer – seven days a week. There will be an electric hook-up point later in the year.

Elisabeth Rowark, director of Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust, said: "Seeing a rural business thrive during such hard economic times is inspiring. The service it provides will cater for the community."

Funding for the project has come from Northumberland Uplands Local Action Group (NULAG) – LEADER, Kielder Limited, Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust and Northumberland County Council.

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