Aims & benefits
[All the text on this page is duplicated in the Business Plan, sections 1.1 and 1.2.]
Our vision: what we are aiming to achieve
Any village the size of Stoke St Gregory needs several things to keep it alive. These include a school, a church, a village hall, a shop and a pub. We currently have all of these, but both pubs and the shop have been on sale for several years, the Rose & Crown has obtained a change of use so that it can be sold as a home, the owners of the Village Stores have announced that they will be unable to continue past the end of 2019, and they too have now been granted a change of use.
Times are hard for small shops and pubs in rural areas. Pubs are continuing to close at an alarming rate, but there has been a small trickle of community buyouts. This is proving to be a very successful way of producing resilient businesses. Community shops have been around for longer, and they too have proved to be a stable and durable solution to the difficulty of maintaining commercial businesses in isolated villages.
Rather than wait until our key village institutions close for good, several of us launched the project to save both the Village Stores and the Royal Oak, before it was too late. Should they close, the community would face the far more demanding prospect of re-establishing two new businesses from scratch.
Our proposal is to buy the Royal Oak on behalf of the village, keep half of it as a pub and café, and use the other half to house the shop. The existing skittle alleys would continue in use, and new communal uses will be developed for other parts of the building as the project evolves.
We do not under-rate the difficulty of raising the funds necessary to buy the Royal Oak, nor do we downplay the effort and expertise required to manage and maintain both businesses. Experience around the country has shown however, that once successfully started, community businesses have a very high chance of long- term survival.
In assessing the challenges posed by this project, we have to take into account the alternative: allowing the shop and pubs to disappear. We feel that this would represent the beginning of a serious decline in the fortunes of Stoke St Gregory. Not only would we miss the facilities we have been used to, but the village as a whole would become a less attractive place to live, those without cars would struggle to cope, it would put strain on other services, and in an almost literal sense, the village would lose its heart.
A community business is far more than the continuation of a commercial business. We value pubs and shops as social hubs quite apart from their function as places to buy food and drink. These gathering places for the exchange of information are the lifeblood of any village. This was demonstrated during the flood events of 2016, when both the Royal Oak and the Village Stores played important roles in co-ordinating the relief efforts. A community enterprise would preserve all of that, but it would do more. Other villages we have visited have told us how volunteering in the shop has provided a positive role for many residents who previously felt isolated. The fact that the direction of the business is determined by the community gives people a sense of ownership and a stronger motivation to contribute to its success. A healthy community enterprise draws on the expertise of hundreds of people and aims to serve the needs of all.
Like many rural villages, Stoke St Gregory has an ageing population and limited opportunities for young families. A core aim of this project is to help address these issues by providing more support and opportunities for both younger and older members of the community, including, for example, local deliveries, holiday jobs and recreational facilities for teenagers.
While the initial plan is to keep the shop alive in a different form, and to ensure that there is at least one pub (and two skittle alleys) in the village, the Royal Oak building is large and flexible enough to house other uses which will benefit the community in ways yet to be determined. There is the possibility of providing an income from rented accommodation, with maybe a room for young people to meet, and potentially a small village archive and gallery. Just as the creation of the new Village Hall in 2006 brought people together, both in the fund-raising phase and now that it is well-funded and successful, so should the community version of the Royal Oak replace the threat of an emptiness at the heart of the village with a thriving and multi-faceted social hub well into the future.