Peter Couchman: The Plunkett Foundation


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Peter Couchman: The Plunkett Foundation

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The Plunkett Foundation is the only foundation in the UK that supports Community Shops.   We will one day, look back on this day and say, “We were here”.  Horace Plunkett from Co Meath in 1850 saw a change coming…a revolution in the rural life.  There were two choices, sit and wait, while things were swept away or take control of the situation yourself.  The English movement is growing and Ireland became known as the source of inspiration.  At the Empire Exhibition in 1924, the participants recognized that the ideas developed in Ireland should be the model.  This was the model that addressed the problems of rural life.

Community shops can be a successful business and can be owned by everyone in the community and this is a vital part of why they have succeeded.  There are many other ways you can succeed.  You can do voluntary food buying, etc and they are all to be welcomed, but when you actually think in terms that this is an enterprise run by this community that brings lots of very special attributes.  One of the things is, these are quite frankly a group of amateurs, people who haven’t done this before.

When compared with the major supermarkets and their gigantic salaries, these community shops do better.  Their like-with-like sales out-strict the large supermarket chains.  Their store opting programmes out-strict the rate of growth in the major super market chains.  Last year the UK government found one thing they couldn’t work out and that was; when bad weather or major disasters occur, these shops massively out perform the major supermarkets in keeping supplies coming through to their communities.  The communities were helping themselves. They were doing a lot of work around implementing local suppliers.  The average supermarkets had less than 1% of its produce coming from local farmers.  The community shops have 26%of their sales coming from local producers.  It is not just the shop that is benefiting.  It is a whole range of farmers and people developing new businesses etc. that is coming though as well.

Other success that we have seen is the success around rural isolation.  These are shops connected to their communities so the most vulnerable in the community have a place to go and a place to be welcomed and the community can actually support them.

One thing we get is people saying, “Yes, well they are very small and run by a handful of people, these must be very fragile.” A UK businessman once said, “You must lose a lot of these.”  Using the figures of today, and I don’t know how you judge sustainability on that one, but for us over the last 20 years we have 333 of these shops start and 319 are still trading today.  Many of those startups came where enterprises failed. The owner couldn’t continue and the community has taken it on.  That survival rate is better than your major industry within our country and continues to improve on that as well.   What we find is once a community has saved it shop, nothing on earth will make them give up if they can do anything about it.  If things change they will adapt, because they know the impact it will have on rural life if they lose it.

The other thing we see is a growing variety of approaches within.  We are very passionate about supporting shops, but that isn’t our starting point.  Our starting point is:  what matters to you in your community and how would you bring that to life.  Shops are of the most common but increasingly people are opening pubs, cafes and a whole range of other ideas. Each community decides what is right for it and they have even used church space and brought it back to life.  We have some fantastic enterprises running out of churches.  Bringing the church back to life and reconnecting the church back to the community.  It is really important that the starting point is what you want to do and not what Plunkett says you should do.

One thing I would like to say with this growth is that they are all learning from each other.  They are supporting each other to grow, learn, and share ideas; that is the Plunkett way of doing it.  That is the reason I believe it would work for any community.  The other thing is learning what it is all about.  Some look at this and say it is about running a shop, saving a shop or whatever, but if I could bring two shops here today, Cwm Trannon in Wales would be one of them, the other I will talk about later

I had the honor to be in Cwm Trannon on opening day.   As I walked across the shop floor I turned to the chairman of the shop and said, “This is a fantastic shop.”  He said, “This is not a shop.”   I was between the bread and the baked beans section at the time, so I was thinking, what is the translation.  Then I thought I got what he meant.  It wasn’t just a shop.  They had actually built a petrol station, there was meeting space, learning space, exhibition space and a whole range of amenities and I thought that is what he means but he didn’t. He said, “ This is what this community wants to be”.  That is a perfect question to ask.  “What do you want your community to be?”  “How do you use this model to actually make that real?”

This work has gone further than the UK, there is some stunning work being done in Western Canada across a size of an area many times the size of Ireland and the UK combined and they are actually using these models.  Interesting enough some Australians are looking at their major problems and decided that by not having this model, it has been one of the major barriers leading to the declining of the stability within the towns in the outback of Australia.  And the slightly bizarre one for us is, when we held an event in Ireland to actually look at how these ideas can move internationally, people that actually supported it were the South Koreans and they wanted to take these ideas on.

So, something came from here that has quite frankly inspired the world.   And if we need one final bit to explain how real that was, here’s one.  Every two years there is a gathering of corporations from around the world to celebrate how they learn from each other and they had to pick one individual or organization to be recognized.  When they met at the end of last year they gave the Rochdale Pioneers Award known as the “Nobel prize of the corporations” to the Plunkett Foundation and what it stood for.  So the entire international movement said those ideas from Ireland are the ones that we most respect in the modern world today.  There is a message for us all there.

Plunkett’s great friend, Elizabeth Fingal quoted “The dreams he had for his own country went to the far ends of the earth where they were better appreciated.”  So we often argue, surely these great ideas developed in Ireland need to come back to Ireland.  Surely these ideas are so relevant to the times and challenges that you face now that this absolutely is the moment to take that on.  Then what we would find is a good Irish colleague would say, “Well, I don’t know if this would work here etc”.  Sometimes we were challenged to have the answer, until the answer came in Loughmore.  You will hear about their amazing work very soon.  They took the ideas that left this island and that are now coming back to it and made it their own.  They actually used the principles that applied to their needs and their community.  So I think when you hear from Mary and Maeve later on we would say, this is about bringing it back to Ireland.  What I would hope would come from the day is that we could say that there is a real chance of a movement here and that movement has to come from those that are already doing and sharing with others and sharing outwards. It’s a wonderful opportunity. What we see is not people opening shops, but people saving the future of their village.  We see people believing in themselves and I believe that applies to any country and certainly to Ireland today.

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