A co-op for the community

On a clear, sunny, summer's day, a visitor to Shetland might be forgiven for thinking that it would be a romantic place to live and work. Over 200 miles north of Aberdeen, Shetland comprises more than 100 islands in the North Atlantic, only 16 of which are inhabited. Rich in history and heritage, famed for its wild flowers, birds, sea-life, idyllic white sandy beaches, Shetland wool and fiddle music, you can easily find yourself beguiled by its tranquillity and charm. But when the visitors have gone, and the 'simmer dim' (24 hours of daylight) gives way to endless wet and windy dreary winter days, this treeless landscape can seem unremittingly bleak and harsh, despite its beauty and relatively mild climate.

Although agriculture, the fishing, oil and gas industries, along with tourism, all help to ensure that unemployment on Shetland remains low at just 2.9 per cent (figures 2000), its population and economy are both in steady decline. According to the Shetland Islands Council, (ref: Shetland Structure Plan 2001 - 2016), most rural areas are experiencing difficulty in retaining population and maintaining viable communities together with the services they require - issues such as poverty and social exclusion may be less visible in a scenic environment, but for the individuals and families concerned the problems are just as great. Lack of access to transport and local services can make everyday life extremely difficult.


Ollaberry shop

Scattered community

Ollaberry is in many ways a typical scattered community, set around a pretty bay within the district of Northmaven, 33 miles from the main town and capital, Lerwick. But in February 1993, when faced with the closure of their shop, the inhabitants of Ollaberry decided to take action. A meeting was organised by the community council in response to local concern - it was widely felt that if Ollaberry didn't have a shop, young people might move away and the village would die. In a wider context, the lack of a shop could have a deleterious effect on the health and wellbeing of the community. Although there was a small store seven miles from the village, Ollaberry residents faced the prospect of a 20 - 30 mile round trip to buy any fresh fruit and vegetables. Certainly the Scottish Office, in 'Eating for Health: A Diet Action Plan for Scotland' has recognised that limited availability of healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables of an acceptable quality and cost and the difficult of access to the larger retailers who sell a good range of fresh food is a distinct barrier to health.

The turn-out at the public meeting was high and a steering committee was formed with a view to trying to buy the shop as a community; Jessie Copland and Jane Brown, local residents who were both on the original steering committee, explain that this plan was abandoned when it was valued at well below the figure the owners were expecting. In the absence of any other suitable premises to lease, buy or convert, a new build quickly turned out to be the only other viable option.

They discovered that if they formed a co-operative and raised funds locally they could secure match funding of up to £10,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and this seemed the perfect solution. To raise the cash required, local people were asked to buy shares in the new co-op at £50 a time. In all, with a combination of grants, and loans, which they are still paying back, they raised about £120,000, formulated a business plan and took a lease on a local authority industrial site in the village. As a fully fledged co-operative, they also got in touch with The Co-operative Group (then known as CWS) to see how it could help.


A grilling

'They certainly grilled us regarding our business plan,' recalls Jessie Copland. ' They were trying to see if we were competent to run a business, not necessarily as individuals but as a committee. It definitely helped when they realised we were determined to open our shop - with or without their help.

'It wasn't all plain sailing,' says Jane Brown. ' One contentious issue was whether or not we should also have fuel pumps. The very low mark-up on fuel and the stringent safety regulations involved all mitigated against us, but we felt it was absolutely crucial. Otherwise, the nearest garage was a 30 mile round trip which is prohibitively costly and very inconvenient for Ollaberry residents'

Jessie Copland and Jane Brown still laugh when they remember the few days before the shop opened. 'On 27th September 1995, we had a brand new shop but it was totally empty,' recalls Jessie. No shelves, no stock, nothing - and we were due to open on October 3rd! Then Keith Allen, the project manager at The Co-operative Group who had been advising us, arrived with a large truck, rolled up his sleeves and within a few days the place was transformed. That man sweated buckets! He put up shelves, installed deep freezers - we were all amazed. He knew where every single item from sugar to shampoo should go - and seven years later we've hardly changed a thing so despite our scepticism, particularly at what seemed like the tons of catfood he insisted we needed, he certainly knew what he was on about! He also trained the staff in ordering etc. But we opened on time and almost everyone in the village turned out for the day.'

Both Jessie and Jane agree the support they got from the Co-operative Group has been fantastic from day one. Ollaberry is a corporate member of the Co-operative Group, which means it can sell Co-op Brand products and make use of the Co-operative Group electronic ordering and distribution system, as well as membership development and help with monitoring and evaluating performance and staff training. The Ollaberry store is run on a full time basis with paid staff. The local volunteer management committee has overall responsibility for the development of the co-op and its members - deciding on how much to pay staff for instance.

Ollaberry Co-op
Ollaberry Co-op

Tackling retail deserts

The Co-operative Group's help was part of the company's wider commitment to tackle the problem of 'retail deserts' in the UK's poorest and most isolated areas. The move, outlined in their 'Breaking the Barriers' report, was triggered by independent research among self help food initiatives and community food co-ops in Scotland, which had shown that poor diet could mean people live up to ten years less than the UK average.

Iain Macdonald, Head of Co-operative Strategy, says: 'It seemed to us that the principles that started the Co-operative Movement could provide the key to solving many of the problems of social exclusion. Small self- help co-ops had been started in deprived areas but many failed, sometimes through lack of practical support . The success of the Ollaberry store is undoubtedly due to the incredible commitment of the local community but CWS has helped by providing advice and practical support throughout.'

There were teething problems - for example the intricacies of the Co-op's distribution system combined with the realities of getting goods to Shetland by sea, meant that initially the Ollaberry store was forced to either buy a whole pallet of fruit (sea freight is charged by the pallet) which was far too much, or none at all, whereas now the manager of the Co-op store in Lerwick is willing to siphon off smaller more manageable quantities. It's this kind of flexibility which can make or break the ongoing viability of a project.

Certainly the figures speak for themselves. In the first year of trading, sales exceeded expectation at around £260,000. By 2,000 sales had increased to £367,000. The shop is well supported by the community now. 'And it's not just because the shop is convenient and efficiently run,' says Jane Brown. ' It's the community aspect too - young and old alike see it as the focal point of the village, a place to come and chat, find out what's going on in the area. The staff look out for their customers, they'll order things in specially for instance. Plus the store provides a significant opportunity for local employment - we have a waiting list of young people who would like to work part time at the store for instance.'


Improving health

The convenience of the shop also means it's easier for people to access fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis so it may well have a direct bearing on improving health. Jane Brown feels the shop adds a sense of social wellbeing to the community too, a concept that is difficult to quantify, but may positively impinge on health. In addition, the population of Ollaberry is stable, therefore bucking the trend elsewhere on Shetland which indicates that the store may act as a positive force in keeping a community together, keeping it vibrant.

The Scottish Office in its report noted that one problem with food co-operatives, seen as one way of tackling health issues and food deserts, is that their potential is underdeveloped because of difficulties in purchasing food at wholesale prices and the lack of access to central purchasing and distribution systems. Clearly the support of the Co-operative Group has been a key advantage in this regard. It is fair to point out that according to Elizabeth Robinson, Health Promotion Manager of NHS Shetland, attempts to form co-operatives in other poorer areas on Shetland, where 'shares' were offered at just 50p or £1 each have failed through lack of support - Ollaberry benefits from the support of what is widely seen as a wealthy local fishing industry and it is recognised that not all communities could have raised the funds required to set up this kind of business, although the Co-operative Group are prepared to help very modest co-operative initiatives too - small fruit and vegetable enterprises for example.

Many areas were complete unknowns at the start for the staff - managing stock, cash flow, maintaining the equipment and bookkeeping, but the Co-operative Group's input has undoubtedly contributed to the long term sustainability of the store while its success is ultimately proof that local communities can make things happen.


Posted: 25-Nov-2003

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