Monthly Archives: June 2012

I had the privilege a couple of weekends ago to spend two days at Hill Holt Wood, a community-owned ancient woodland in Linconshire, talking conservation and enterprise with around 90 others.

Hill Holt Wood for those who do not know it is a special, special place – no other organisation could get the group of people they brought together in one place. Very different interests were united in their admiration and support for Hill Holt Wood and what it has achieved at it’s 10th anniversary event. It is a place that feels wholly and truly good – a wonderful place to be. The woodland is being managed brilliantly, it’s seen as an important community asset, it provides employment, training and life opportunities and it runs on an enterprise basis. Hill Holt Wood is proof that the highest standards of conservation and community enterprise can and should work together.

The event itself Enterprise and Conservation – A Meeting of Minds did exactly what is says on the tin. It brought together the social enterprise world including Plunkett, Locality, Co-operatives UK and Social Enterprise UK. It also brought together public sector stakeholders including the Forestry Commission, Natural England and North Kestevan Council, a wide range of academics from various disciplines, funders like Big Issue Invest and Big Society Capital and those involved in different ways in woodland management, conservation and land management. Here are a few of the key talking points from the event that I picked up on:

  • Enterprise needs to be the basis for community woodlands – without enterprise, communities will be unable to deliver whatever economic, social or environmental outcomes they are looking to achieve.
  • Collaboration is key – collaboration between those attending, collaboration between policy makers, collaboration between communities were key themes for the day.
  • Beware the unintended consequences of government action – short term policy cycles (in woodland terms) have created uncertainty for woodlands – community owned and otherwise.
  • Removing silos – delegates were challenging policy makers to remove silos but also many were recognising that they were guilty of silo working also – lots for all of us to work on!
  • Recognising multiple benefits – Hill Holt Wood delivers so much to so many people but policy makers and funders rarely recognise the full spectrum of benefits that they provide.
  • Influencing policy – We all felt that policy makers should learn from Hill Holt Wood but we, as a movement, need to identify clear policy asks to go to government with.
  • Maintaining momentum – the event felt like a watershed. The challenge now will be to continue to the momentum generated by the event.
  • Long term planning – woodlands do not work in government cycles of 5 years. Longer term thinking and planning is needed.
  • Risks? What risks? – It was highlighted a few times that Hill Holt Wood has taken a few risks over the years. But to Nigel and Karen, they don’t think that this is the case as they understood their woodland, their people and their enterprise. The public sector could learn a lot about risk from Hill Holt Wood.
  • Think differently! Beware toxic thinking – Hill Holt Wood would not have happened without radically different thinking.
  • Replication not franchising – Nigel was clear that he sees the future as inspiring others to adopt and adapt the Hill Holt Wood approach not to directly replicate.

Congratulations to Karen and Nigel Lowthrop and the whole of the Hill Holt Wood team on the event and what they have achieved through Hill Holt Wood over the past ten years.

This week Defra has published their Statistical Digest of Rural England 2012, in their words a ‘collection of statistics on a range of social and economic subject areas’. There is a huge amount of information in the digest which helps to inform debates on a range of issues. But, there are a few key gaps.

An issue we’ve raised before at Plunkett with Defra and other government departments is that there is a big difference between analysing data that already exists and starting with a viewpoint of what data do rural communities need to help them to inform decisions they need to make. One issue we have raised a few times is that no one within Government has information on shop and pub closures affecting rural communities.

We’ve got a good relationship with Defra and we share our information on community shops, community enterprise and community food in order to help inform their policy and evidence base. The figures we and others use such as 400 village shop closures in 2011 as estimates. We’d like to see this gap plugged and we have been pleased to see CAMRA taking steps to better identify the number of pubs that are being lost to rural and urban communities. This type of information and more would help rural communities to make more informed decisions. The only way to achieve this will be through the Government working together with organisations like Plunkett and many others to help plug the gap.


Today is the last day of Volunteers’ Week, an annual week long celebration highlighting the many roles that volunteers play in our society.

Using volunteers is seen by some as a sign of weakness in a social enterprise but I disagree with those that have those views.  The majority of community-owned enterprises in rural areas rely in various ways on volunteers – some for governance, some for the day to day running of the organisation.  In my opinion volunteers are a great strength for community enterprises, not a weakness.

Community-owned shops for example can often rely heavily on volunteers – typically between 25 and 30 per shop.  Feckenham Village Shop in Worcestershire has a staggering 90 volunteers!  While volunteers help the community shops to be financially viable, they also contribute their ideas and energy to make the shop the best it can be.  This goes a long way to explain why community shops when they open rarely close.

Volunteers also personally get a great deal out of their involvement in community shops.  Plunkett undertook some research for Hastoe Housing in the South West looking at the role of older people as beneficiaries and drivers of community-owned shops.  It’s clear that many people benefit significantly – one 84 year old gentleman said that since he has got involved, his social life has never been busier.  One person that stood out for me explained how getting involved allowed them to get over major events in his life after he was made redundant and became physically unwell in quick succession.

So thank you to all those who lend their time and expertise to keeping community-owned enterprises in rural areas ticking.  It couldn’t be done without you.

On 5th May the second round of Village SOS Roadshow events began in Narberth, Pembrokeshire at Village SOS Wales. The purpose of the events (part of the Big Lottery Fund Village SOS campaign) is to inspire rural communities with what is possible through community enterprise and to give those attending the tools they need to take their ideas forward. To date there have been six held so far this Spring and alongside Narberth events have taken place in Yorkshire and Humber (Skipton), West Midlands (Shrewsbury), South East (Oxford), North East (Morpeth) and East of England (Norwich).

Here are a few reflections on the events held to date.

Village SOS is a unique opportunity for rural communities – all too often rural communities can miss out on funding and support due to geographical or other boundaries. In the past some kinds of community enterprise may have had support whereas others have not. Some regions or countries had support available for community enterprises and others did not. The great thing about Village SOS is that it is a UK wide programme – this includes the advice line and also the grant funding of between £10,000 and £50,000. Our advice to rural communities is to take advantage of this unique opportunity before the 12 September when the funding window closes.

The amazing range of rural community enterprises being set up – this was particularly apparent at the Morpeth event where each conversation at the Village SOS stand was different. They included communities looking to set up a shop, pub, café, affordable housing, village hall redevelopment, community transport, green care, community growing, community broadband to name but a few. The message of what communities through community enterprise can achieve is getting out there and communities are responding with a range of ambitious and entrepreneurial ideas.

Engaging the wider community is seen as the biggest barrier – at each event we ask people what they feel the biggest barrier to setting up a community enterprise is. So far three in five people see engaging the wider community as the biggest barrier. This is unsurprising as the events are aimed at rural communities just beginning to explore setting up a new community enterprise. Most roadshow events hold a session on engaging your community and tips have included asking the wider community for help, holding public meetings, undertake a survey asking what community members want and how they can help and most important of all, communicate, communicate, communicate!

The importance of local and national networks – a real success of the roadshow events has been bringing together national organisations such as Plunkett, Locality, ACRE and Co-operatives UK (the partners delivering the events and advice line for Village SOS) with a range of local and regional networks. For a rural community looking to set up a community enterprise, knowing who can help and in what way is invaluable and these events are a great way of accessing a range of support.

Avoid reinventing wheels – The events have been great at bringing together communities that have set up and run successful community enterprises with those that are just starting out. The openness and willingness to share learning has been fantastic and these can help communities to shortcut the route to getting a community enterprise up and running. At each event a question and answer session is held in the morning and afternoon. At the Oxford event is was great to see the audience, not just the panel, start to respond to some of the questions with how they have solved that particular problem.

Momentum is building – Steve Clare of Locality did a great presentation in Morpeth which concluded with a slide showing where he felt the community enterprise movement was going. The first was pins on a map illustrating existing community enterprises. The second was a map so full of pins you couldn’t see where they didn’t exist. This I felt was a great illustration of the momentum building within rural communities and what the future may look like.

Here’s to the next five events coming up in Penrith, Exeter, Lincoln, Dunfermline and London! If the events sound like your kind of thing, we’d love to see you there (book here).