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Community ownership in Kent

PUBLISHED: 14:03 08 November 2015 | UPDATED: 14:03 08 November 2015

Tonbridge Angels

Tonbridge Angels

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Local community groups in the UK are coming together to own and run businesses and services which have long been in demand but not provided. Here are four Kent examples.

There was a time that if a local business went under, that was that. It wouldn’t matter if it was valued by the local community, essential to a community’s functioning or simply a much-treasured local asset. If the market decided enough was enough then too bad.

But in recent years there has been a growing challenge to this once inevitable process. 
Increasingly, communities are fighting back and today, if a business goes under, there’s every chance that local people will join together to save it. And sometimes, even go further.

There are examples all over the country today of local community groups coming together to own and run businesses and services which have long been in demand but not provided.

Here in Kent we have not been immune to this trend, as these examples illustrate.

Tonbridge Angels

Unlike many of our European cousins, in this country football clubs have tended to be owned privately either by a single wealthy individual or a small group of wealthy individuals.

But that is starting to change. Over the past 20 years, more and more clubs (largely in the lower leagues) have embraced community 
ownership, a model through which supporters have established democratic control at their clubs. One of the most recent to do this is 
Tonbridge Angels. “For us, the main motivation was about long-term succession,” says Steve Churcher, the current chairman of the club.

“Owners come and go, but the fans don’t. It seemed to make sense that, for the long-term, this is the group who should be the owners.”

Fan see themselves as the ‘moral’ owners of their club of choice and for those like Steve who have been behind the move to community ownership, the establishment of supporter control merely makes this more concrete.

Steve adds: “Most supporters think that the fans know more than the owner. In our case, you can actually see if that’s the case.”

Under the model used by the Tonbridge Angels, supporters invest in the club, and in return (regardless of the size of that investment) receive one vote. This allows them to elect a management committee that runs the club.

“Also, any major decisions that take place, like a stadium move or the prospect of external investment, would be put to the membership,” adds Steve.

Although relatively recent converts to the community ownership model, so far Steve is happy with the decision. “The club is doing well on the pitch, our finances are in good shape and we are benefiting from the enormous goodwill of our membership, the latter expressed by our impressive rate of volunteering.”

In fact the lower tiers of English football are increasingly populated by clubs like Tonbridge Angels, each hoping to ape the likes of FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon who have united community ownership with remarkable success on the pitch.

“I don’t know how far this model can take us but we’re in a good place and so far so good,” says Steve with a big smile.

Wealden Wheels

Before Wealden Wheels, people like the elderly, the less well-off and the disabled were marginalised and forgotten about

Rural public transport is notoriously awful. Sporadic bus appearances, villages without provision, destinations out of reach, it’s one of the main reasons that learning to drive is almost a prerequisite of rural life.

“In our part of Kent, which covers the villages of Smarden, Challock, Charing, Chilham, Egerton and Pluckley, there was virtually no public transport provision for the communities affected,” says Alan Davies, finance director of Wealden Wheels, a community owned bus service operating out of Pluckley.

Because of this lack of provision, back in 2004, several of those villages got together to see if they could provide their own service.

“A not-for-profit company was created which went out and got funding for the venture. Owned and managed by the rural communities involved, the aim was to bridge the transport gap in rural villages by providing an affordable and suitable bus service for community groups and families, whether social, leisure or health-inspired,” explains Alan.

Wealden Wheels, as the company was christened, has been active since April 2004, operating a small fleet of minibuses (two of which are adapted to carry disabled passengers).

Those wanting to use the service pay an annual membership fee of £10 for the right to book journeys on the bus.

“Our members include organisations working with children, youth groups, disabled, elderly, housebound or otherwise socially disadvantaged people, as well as those who simply like to go out with like-minded friends to visit places of interest and wish to travel in one vehicle rather than having to take several cars.”

According to Alan, without Wealden Wheels life for many members of the community could be much more difficult.

“Access is everything and that’s what we provide. This is especially important for more vulnerable members of the community, like the elderly, the less well-off and the disabled. Before Wealden Wheels, these people were marginalised and forgotten about. With our services, they can now get out and about. And that’s hugely important.”

Benenden Community Shop

“Village shops are an essential part of community life. They are not just commercial enterprises, they are social hubs, places where people can come and interact. That’s why ensuring we had a functioning shop was so important to the people of this village,” thinks Martin Pexton, a member of the start-up committee behind the Benenden Community Shop.

When it became known recently that the owners of the village’s shop were looking to retire, several local residents got together to see if this valuable asset could be secured by the community.

“Fortunately for us, the local school was in need of accommodation for its teachers, something that the shop boasted. So we were able to secure an agreement with them where they would buy the building and we, as a community would lease the shop off them,” adds Martin.

To secure the funds for this and the initial running of the shop, a Community Benefit Society (CBS) was formed.

“Shares were then issued in this, which could be bought for as little as £10. Importantly, regardless of how much you invested, each shareholder was only entitled to one vote. Aside from helping us financially, investment entitles members to elect the management board and shape the future of our shop” says Martin.

Through this, the CBS was able to attract 300 shareholders who, together, have invested over £70,000.

“Their investment is supporting the refit of the shop premises with counters, chillers, and other equipment together with the purchase of initial stock” says Martin.

At the moment, the shop is housed in a nearby vacant pub, kindly donated by a local pub owner. But once the refit is complete, this community enterprise will move home.

“Along with the shop, we will also have a café and a post office. This aim is that we, and our army of more than 60 volunteers, will make Benenden’s shop the heart of the community, a place where everyone, young and old, can come and meet.”

The Farriers Arms

Back in 2009, the Farriers Arms in Mersham was in a bad state. After several years of decline, the pub closed its doors. There then followed a period when it became something of a blight, a boarded-up eyesore that was attracting the wrong clientele.

“Something had to be done and the community acted,” says Richard Bishop current managing director of the community company that owns the pub.

Richard approached the agents selling the pub and asked if they would be open to a buy-out of the pub. He then set about knocking on doors asking local people to invest in his idea.

“I formed a limited company and then established an Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) as a vehicle for local involvement. An EIS offers investors many benefits, such as tax relief, exemption from inheritance tax and exemption from Capital gains tax. The company was also set up so that members could elect the management committee that would run the pub.”

Going door to door, Richard managed to secure £630,000, much more than he had expected. Although most investors came from the village, that wasn’t always the case.

“We had friends of local people investing, people who had once lived in the village and people who were thinking of moving here and recognised the value of a good, community pub” says Richard.

Once the property had been bought, Richard and the rest of the management committee set about refitting it.

“We talked to the community and asked what they wanted from a pub. The whole point of this exercise was to create something valued by local people, so it made sense to go down this route.”

Today, according to Richard, the pub is a vital part of community life. “It’s a valued local asset, one that is regularly used by local people and by community groups. In our additional, free-to-use building we have many groups that meet, and on our fields behind the pub we have football league for younger members of the community.

“A few years ago, this pub was nothing. Now it is a social hub. And that’s all down to hard work and faith of our community and the great team that we have here.”

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