'Without us, people wouldn't leave their homes' - How Yorkshire's community run pubs and shops are helping to tackle scourge of loneliness and social isolation

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When Clapham Village Store received the country’s highest volunteering award, it was described by assessors as the areas’s “first - and hugely effective - defence against isolation and loneliness, a scourge of remote rural life for the elderly”.

Priding itself on being something much more than a place to go to buy newspapers, bread and milk, the community-owned shop has become part of the social fabric of the village, nestled on the edge of the Dales National Park.

The shop is a community-run business.

The shop is a community-run business.

“A lot of the community have said I get to see people now - I didn’t see people before,” says volunteer Sue Mann, who has lived in the area for 28 years. “Someone said they met more people in their first day (volunteering) at the shop than they did the whole of last year. They get to meet friends and neighbours and also visitors.

“I think when you volunteer, you put something in but you also get something out of it. As a volunteer or as a customer, there is somewhere you can go that is open seven days a week.

"We’ve had a number of people new to the village volunteer to get to know people. Also, for customers, going to the shop gives them someone to talk to...Some wouldn’t speak to anybody the rest of the day.”

Yorkshire villagers fighting back to keep pubs as hubs
The North Yorkshire store was taken over by the community after its closure in 2014. With many residents, including those without access to a vehicle or with mobility problems, relying on the shop for essentials, a group of individuals saw the potential for a community development.

Volunteers at Clapham Village store.

Volunteers at Clapham Village store.

They held public meetings and sought advice from the Plunkett Foundation, a national charity which helps rural areas tackle issues through promoting and supporting community business.

And in July 2014, Clapham Community Shop Ltd was formed. Within five weeks, nearly £35,000 was raised through a community share offer, with around 165 members now investing. Following renovation work and various funding grants, the shop re-opened as a community venture in March 2015.

Fast-forward to today and a team of more than 45 volunteers put work worth £45,000 per year into the shop, lending a hand with everything from cleaning to stock taking and serving customers.

The community business also employs five paid staff from the local area and offers additional services including prescription collection, home deliveries to those who are housebound and a dry cleaning drop off and collection point.

“Recognising the shop is central in the village so is pretty accessible for most people, we felt it had to be more than a shop,” explains Sue, who has chaired its management committee for four years.

“It is a hub in the village. It provides a real centre for people to go to. The fact it is run by the community means that people meet their friends and neighbours there and have a vested interest in it. They own it. There’s a sense of pride.”

“There are probably far more conversations now outside the shop in the street than ever there were before,” she adds. “Simply because we all know more people. That definitely results in a feel good factor.”

Back in June, Clapham Community Shop became a recipient of The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, granted to exceptional volunteer groups across the UK who are making a positive impact on the lives of others. In the assessment process, it was described as “a neighbourhood watch for people rather than property - friendly, caring, alert, supportive”.

Such benefits of community business are well-recognised by the Plunkett Foundation, which is running an event in Leeds this week so that community groups who own and run enterprises can share their experiences with others aspiring to do the same.

By the end of 2018 there were nearly 100 community pubs trading across the UK – with 11 opening in the previous year. Meanwhile 16 new community owned and run shops started trading – bringing the national total to over 360.

With closures of commercial ventures, the community model is, in many cases, an example of residents directly responding to some of the challenges facing rural communities, including lack of services and isolation.

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And Charlotte Foster, a Plunkett Foundation advisor based in Skipton and supporting community businesses across the North, believes the success of the movement is also behind its growth.

“When people see what can be achieved, they think well actually, we can do this too. It is a huge amount of work, that’s not to be underestimated and I always say be prepared. But the sense of pride, you can’t beat it.”

Community businesses help the local economy by encouraging people to spend money in their own area, Charlotte says. They provide jobs, volunteering and training opportunities and can be a vital part of resilience and adverse weather planning, ensuring people have somewhere in the community where they can turn in times of need.

They also promote health and wellbeing, she claims, by increasing neighbourliness and conversation, which can in turn help to tackle social isolation and feelings of loneliness. “These places are more than just a pub or a shop, they’re a meeting place,” she says.

“They are somewhere where people can keep an eye on each other...People go in and they see their neighbours and build up this feeling of community spirit and belonging. If you take away a village shop or pub, then you take the heart out of a community.”

It was the desire to protect that heart that sparked villagers in Exelby in the Hambleton district to take over the running of the historic Green Dragon pub, after it closed in April last year.

Residents say the pub had not been the much-loved vibrant hub that it once was for some time and a community benefit society was set up at the end of 2016 with the aim of revitalising it.

After two and a half years of negotiating, the community bought the pub last October, raising around £350,000 for its purchase and renovation, through a share scheme, which was supported by grants.

“Once we started, people saw the possibility that they could do all kinds of things and not be dependent on others,” says John Walker, secretary of Exelby Green Dragon Community Pub Ltd. “It became a community in its strongest form, supporting itself and being socially responsible.”

Eleven months after its re-opening in December, the pub now has a cafe and shop and hosts various clubs and activities. B&B accommodation is also due to open soon. “It’s the beating heart of Exelby,” John says.

“There are no other services in the village and people would have had to drive to get anywhere really. It’s been a lifeline for some, in the sense that people can become very isolated without somewhere to meet. It’s a social outlet for people that stops that isolation.”

“A lot of people have said without the Green Dragon being there, they wouldn’t leave their homes,” he adds. “It does give a focus for people to come together.”

Representatives of Clapham Village Store and Exelby’s Green Dragon are attending the Community Business Networking event, organised by the Plunkett Foundation, on November 13.

It will take place from 10am until 4pm at The Studio, Whitehall Road in Leeds. Community-owned and run enterprises of all kinds are invited to attend, whether they have been trading for years or are just beginning.

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They will have the opportunity to network with other groups and discuss examples of best practice for rural community business.Other highlights include sessions on financial planning, managing staff and volunteers, boosting the local economy and promoting health and wellbeing.

To book a place, visit plunkett.co.uk/events