Chris Cowcher, provides an overview of a recent visit to Westbury Community Shop and Café on the border of Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire.

Having met in one of the many fringe events at the Conservative Party conference, when I was there representing our movement back in October, I was delighted to receive a request for a follow-up meeting with Greg Smith, MP for Buckingham. Greg’s team were keen to follow up on our brief discussions at the conference about the importance of rural businesses and the role of community-owned businesses in terms of the local economy.

What better place to meet him than Westbury Community Shop and Café, a thriving community business in his own constituency.

Hosted by the amazing team of Mel, Kirsty, and Jo, it was great to show Greg and his colleague, George all the amazing local products that were on sale in the shop. I even did some of my Christmas shopping there. Greg’s last visit had been in the times shortly after lockdown, when he was served from the shop doorway, owing to social distancing rules. This time however and once inside you just cannot help to notice the wonderful array of products that are on offer – Westbury is a real treasure trove and well worth a visit!

Greg with copies of Plunkett's research and the Rural Housing paper, written in partnership with Thakeham.

I was so appreciative of Mel, Kirsty and Jo for giving up their time to speak with the MP and I will never tire of championing the great work they are doing with Furze Down School – offering work experience to young people with additional needs. This kind of ‘social impact’ is very present throughout the community-ownership movement and it was great to give their efforts some greater recognition than what I, alone, could offer to them.

It’s safe to say we were impressed by how the business is flourish in these well documented challenging times, furthermore it was great to hear that they have been able to utilise funding from HS2 to install solar panels on the village hall. We know from our own research that many community businesses are already installing, or have a desire to install energy saving materials (ESMs) on their premises. It was great therefore to share with Greg Plunkett’s ask of Government to extend the VAT relief (announced in the Autumn statement) on ESMs to community benefit societies also. This simple change would back a movement that is delivering social, economic, and environmental impacts the length and breadth of the UK.

Greg was also interested to hear about Plunkett’s work with ‘other’ forms of community businesses, that were not shops and pubs – which are by far the biggest community that we have supported to date. It was great to be able to reference that on the day we were meeting, our Chief Executive was filming for a piece to be broadcast on the BBC in the New Year which will feature a community-owned hardware shop and a local group aspiring to bring their GP surgery into community ownership. With more and more people recognising that this form of business can not only protect local assets, but also encourage employment and training opportunities, provide a boost to local supply and trade, and demonstrably address many hidden inequities that exist in the countryside through creating inclusive spaces, it’s no wonder the network continues to grow year on year.

Finally, I shared our appreciation with Greg, for this Government’s implementation of the Community Ownership Fund, something which brings investment into our sector. I also took the opportunity to flag that with further investment via Dormant Assets Funding; channelled through community wealth funds, social investment (including community shares) could accelerate our movement even further and more quickly.

I look forward to following up Greg and colleagues in the New Year when, as we’re all expecting, it is very likely that we’ll be seeing the calling of a General Election. For now though, I shall look forward to Christmas Day and cracking open my bottle of fizz from Chafor wine estate, another local producer to Westbury, that I picked up on my trip.

Chris Cowcher, Head of Policy and Communications

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