[The text below is taken directly from sections 2.1 to 2.3 of the Business Plan]
The village of Stoke St Gregory
Our village was in earlier times virtually self-sufficient—it had to be: at a time when very few residents would have had access to cars, most of the day-to-day requirements of life had to be provided close to home. The records are not clear, but at one time or another there have been at least six pubs within the parish (which formerly included Burrowbridge), four or more shops of various sorts and countless other informal retail businesses. Times change. Nowadays it is a simple matter for most of us to drive to town, many work there on a daily basis, and supermarket home deliveries have put even more pressure on local shops who find it difficult to compete on cost and range.
The role of the local shop has changed therefore, but its existence remains vital. Not only is it an essential source of supplies for the minority who do not have access to transport and the internet, and a convenience for the rest who need to top up on the odd item from time to time, it is also a vital focal point and a shop window for the village itself. We have all had the experience of visiting an unfamiliar village, ready for a cup of tea or a sandwich, only to find no shop and a boarded-up pub. We do not want Stoke St Gregory to become that village.
The Parish Council became aware in late 2017 that the future of both the pubs and the shop might be under threat, and the Forward Strategy Group (an advisory sub-group of the PC) began to discuss options for protecting them. The FSG took advice from Plunkett Foundation, a charity which has been helping groups with co-operative enterprises for exactly 100 years.
The Parish Council registered the Royal Oak as an Asset of Community Value. The effect of this is to give the PC a six month block on any sale that does not guarantee the continua- tion of the business, in order to arrange a community purchase.
A survey was then distributed to everyone in the parish (and a few outside) in May 2018. People were asked how supportive they would be of a community shop and of a community pub, how often they would expect to use each, and whether or not they would be prepared to volunteer to help in a number of different ways. Of around 770 surveys distributed, over 300 were completed. This represents a 40% response rate which is considered unusually high for a survey of this type. Of those who replied, 86% were either supportive or very supportive of the shop, and 75% either supportive or very supportive of the pub.
The survey was organised by members of the FSG, but it had become apparent that the project for a community enterprise was too large to continue as an element of PC business and needed to be run by an independent team, so following a public meeting on 7 June 2018, a steering group was set up.
The project was renamed the Heart of the Village (HOTV) from July 2018, and we obtained a bursary of £2,500 from Plunkett Foundation to cover the cost of preliminary advice and a Business Buyer & Market Appraisal Valuation Report of the Royal Oak which was commissioned in October.
There was a long period of uncertainty following the survey when we could not move for fear of interfering with plans to save the Rose & Crown in Woodhill. The Village Stores meanwhile were hoping for a commercial sale and saw a community shop as a last resort. It was only once the Village Stores applied for a change of use and gave us their support, that we could finally put forward concrete plans. The Rose & Crown remains in business, and our plans are based on the assumption that it will continue to do so, but since it now also has a change of use, we felt that it was in the best interests of the village to proceed.
The Royal Oak is the most suitable building to house the community enterprise, but the opportunity to buy it will not last indefinitely and the Village Stores could close at any time. We feel that if this project is going to happen at all, now is the time to act and to act quickly. There is a verbal agreement to sell the Royal Oak to the Heart of the Village.
Since March 2019 Heart of the Village (Stoke St Gregory) Ltd has been authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority as a Community Benefit Society (registration no. 8065). The project received further impetus at a well-attended public meeting on 4 April 2019, where many searching questions were asked, but an overwhelming majority of those present expressed support.
The Business Plan, together with the accompanying Share Prospectus, will enable us to move on to the next stage, which is to sell shares and build a body of Members who can elect an HOTV Management Committee to take over from the current preliminary management committee.
The Heart of the Village project will not succeed unless it has widespread public backing. We are keen to engage with as many people in the community as possible. Our committee meetings are all open to the public, and we plan to advertise large public meetings at regular intervals to inform, explain, answer questions and invite suggestions.