One of the reasons I moved to a small village on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales was that we had found somewhere that had it all. Around a thousand people, pretty much all of whom are just the sort of people you would want to share your life with, but supporting two pubs (three if you count the bar at the sports club), a shop/post office, a Village Institute, a church, a Chinese takeaway and a railway station that could get me from the middle of nowhere to the centre of London in three hours. Unlike most villages that have long lost all local facilities, and with it any sense of cohesion and community, Cononley is a living working village which seems to still have more farmers than solicitors.
Like most villages, Cononley is constantly under threat of change. Some chages are positive, such as the imminent upgrade to the broadband connection which might improve on the current 5Mb/s bottleneck between me and the rest of the universe while other changes are less welcome. A proposal to close the railway station some years ago was successfully thwarted, and some of the uglier housing development proposals have also been thrown out, hopefully leaving the ones that enrich the community while also providing affordable housing for local people.
The latest threat to rear its head is to the village shop and post office which has been up for sale for a long time now, with sadly no takers. It’s a thriving shop at the heart of the community and even comes with a flat above it. And of course it is more than a shop, it is a place where people can stop for a chat or bump into other people and in a society with increasing numbers of people living alone that provides an important social function.
Maybe the asking price is too high, the idea of having me as a neighbour is too terrifying or perhaps the prospect of early morning starts to do the newspapers coupled with seven day opening isn’t too attractive these days. As a result there is some talk of following the lead of Ambridge and transforming it to a community shop. Fortunately the task isn’t as daunting as it may seem. Over 300 community shops have been set up with the help of organisations such as the Plunkett Foundation who also supply all the legal templates to ensure that community ownership can be a success.
As part of the committee looking into the shop I’m happy to leave the legal structures to others better qualified, but as someone who has run shops before, albeit in fashion, I’m wondering what a twenty first century village shop should look like? While newspapers, big jars of sweets and tins of peas are a necessary part of the mix, the retail sector is changing fast and this may provide an opportunity for a village shop.
Although large organisations are well positioned to take advantage of e-commerce, the Cononley Village Shop is no Ocado or Marks & Spencer’s. There may be an opportunity to use the shop as a collection point so that people don’t have to wait in for deliveries but that could be a large investment for little reward. Other ideas mooted have been to enlarge the catchment area to make the shop a ‘destination’ – specialist beers and wine have been mooted as possible specialities – or to focus on something else that isn’t available within a reasonable radius.
Fortunately within the village we have a smattering of directors of public companies, entrepreneurs and software engineers (as well as a few judges) so the intellectual capacity to build a successful community enterprise exists. However I suspect that, like me, many of the people we would like to be involved simply don’t have the time to be as fully engaged as we would like, so like most community organisations we’ll be relying on semi retired volunteers to help out.
As we are very much at the exploratory stage any ideas are welcome, as are successful role models we can study. But the clock is ticking and we need to start moving. I’m about to pop out to the shop to buy some free range eggs from our local farm for breakfast, and the prospect of having to drive to Cross Hills or Skipton for them is terrifying when I’m used to a 30 second walk and a five minute chat.