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Cobham Village Store

PUBLISHED: 08:59 06 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:59 06 March 2014

Volunteers at Cobham Village Store

Volunteers at Cobham Village Store

Rikard Osterlund

How community endeavour and The Prince's Countryside Trust saved a vital local service

Community owned village shops are one of the big success stories of the whole co-operative enterprise movement. In 1993 there were just 23 community owned shops trading in the UK; now there are 319.

According to James Alcock, Head of Frontline at the Plunkett Foundation: “We are working with a further 86 communities to explore community ownership as a way of saving their village shop. Over the past 25 years, only 15 have ever closed, giving them around a 95 per cent success rate.”

The Plunkett Foundation encourages new community enterprises to learn from existing ones via study visits – like the one The Prince’s Countryside Fund funded so that the team behind a new venture being planned in Cobham could meet another, established venture and learn from them.

Their visit to The Shop at Strood Green 
in Surrey, which covered everything from working with volunteers to bookkeeping and team rotas, proved invaluable and Cobham hasn’t looked back since the launch of its own store in December 2013.

The 300th such shop to open in the UK, Cobham Village Store is set in the delightfully unspoilt village of the same name and not only sells essentials and groceries, but also local produce and crafts.

But behind its picture-book perfect look lies a lot of hard graft and a real example of community spirit. When the local shop closed two years ago, the village was devastated; it had been the hub of the community for 170 years.

It was especially important to the area’s older residents who, after the shop shut, just weren’t getting out and socialising in the way they’d always enjoyed.

I spoke to Daniel Friend, a PR professional who handles the marketing side alongside his full-time job in London and happens very conveniently to live opposite the shop.

He was joined by Anna Ghomi, who has 
an interior design service and is largely responsible for a store that looks more like an upmarket continental deli and bakery than your average village shop.

The duo are typical of the high-powered, eight-member Cobham Community Stores committee that also includes a builder, a lawyer, two professional shop fitters, a planner and a community education specialist for the Royal Opera House. 
Their co-chair, pharmacologist Dr Gillian Burgess, is so passionate about the shop that she does her entire weekly shop there.

“We were quite lucky that we had the 
right people with the right skills in the community, despite there only being 200 houses in the village,” says Daniel, with very British understatement.

That power group set about raising a staggering £85,000 to get the shop off the ground, £65,000 of which came from grants, £43,000 from the National Lottery Fund’s Village SOS fund, which helps ailing rural community ventures. The committee also raised several hundred pounds by selling £10 shares to villagers and the wider community (including the local MP), which guarantee a say in decision making.

But non-cash help was invaluable too, and the committee say they couldn’t have managed without the support of the Plunkett Foundation, who talked them through the legal frameworks and gave practical advice, like finding supportive electricity suppliers and running workshops on democratic decision-making.

The shop is a spacious 1,200 sq ft and it’s busy from first thing with people popping in for their morning paper or a takeaway coffee. But it couldn’t function without its vital volunteers, as three are needed in the shop at any one time. Most work between two and for hours a week and the oldest helper is 92, the youngest in her teens

Anna says: “Many call in just for a chat. We try and provide what people want 
and there is a suggestion box for ideas. 
For example, we were asked to get in dates for Christmas, bird food and kindling, and if we know a baby is due we will make sure we have appropriate things in for them.”

Daniel adds: “Most people buy little but often. They do what I do, which is to write my shopping list and buy everything I can from here, then whatever is left I will pick up in the supermarket – but I will only need to take one bag once a fortnight now.

“There was some concern we’d be 
more expensive because we don’t have the buying power of the large nationals; we can’t buy milk in bulk, for example. But I bought a basket of essentials, compared it with Morrisons and Sainsburys and it came out a few pence cheaper overall.”

Not only is there organic bread baked fresh every morning, local cheeses, honeys and jams for sale, but also wine from nearby Meopham vineyards, fruit and veg (much of it donated allotment produce), Whitstable lavender, locally made glassware and pottery, and even a book swap section.

It’s hard not to come away thinking that every village should have a community store just like this. n

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