…but we need more volunteers and more progressive action from town councils copying successful schemes elsewhere, insists Rupert Hardy, chair of North Dorset Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE)
Over the last decade or two there has been huge growth in community-led ventures in Dorset, as well as the rest of the UK.
The drivers for this have been the reduction in services offered by local authorities, particularly during the austerity years following the 2008 financial crisis, when government cut back massively on its financial support to local government, with, for example, subsidies for local bus services being cut.
More onerous drink-drive laws affecting pubs, the growth of supermarkets undercutting traditional village stores, successive governments reducing the provision of social housing and a need
to provide roof-mounted renewable energy that will not desecrate Dorset’s beautiful countryside, have all been factors.
An increase in ‘belonging’
At the same time growing life expectancy has meant that more retirees have the time and energy to support volunteering and community- led activities, usually on a voluntary, unpaid, basis. Innovation
in ownership structures and arguably greater altruism have all helped too. Across the UK more people feel they are part of their local community, with around a third acknowledging that Covid has increased their sense of belonging.
There has been a growing realisation that communities need to act to reduce loneliness and isolation as the government has been slow to address longstanding issues, such as mental health.
The list of community-led or owned activities is long: community-owned pubs and shops; community transport; community land trusts; community energy groups; community kitchens and myriad other groups.
Dorset CPRE has been active in promoting many of these too, as we believe in community engagement and localism, opposing a government that remains too focused on centralisation and control of power.
Genuinely affordable homes…
Community-led housing covers a range of models, but community land trusts (CLT) may be the most significant, involving local people creating genuinely affordable homes on a non-profit basis. The concept was borrowed from the USA, where it was developed strongly during the civil rights movement era. The first community land trust in Dorset was set up more than a decade ago in Buckland Newton, but there are now over 20 here, with seven actually housing people. Oliver Letwin, the MP, was a great supporter of the concept. There are examples in Gillingham, Sturminster Newton and Fontmell Magna, while our Sherborne CPRE group is supporting a new one which hopes to take advantage of Sherborne Castle Estate’s wish to provide sites. Hastoe Housing Association manage many of the properties in Dorset.
Dorset CPRE support pubs and village shops, which are the beating hearts of our village communities, but they have been threatened by many factors, with COVID lockdowns affecting pubs brutally.
There are several community- owned pubs in Dorset and I am happy to eat at one in Shapwick, The Anchor, which produces delicious food. The designation of pubs threatened with closure as ‘Assets of Common Value’ has helped in their growth. Dorset CPRE run and judge the Best Village Shop competition in Dorset, and a number of community-led shops, such as Thorncombe Village Shop have won prizes. The Plunkett Foundation has been instrumental in getting such ventures off the ground, and there are now over 350 in the UK. They succeed as they engage the community, who are more likely to shop there, and they stimulate social activity. There are also community kitchens, such as Sherborne Community Kitchen created in Sherborne during Covid to help the vulnerable, staffed by volunteers. Most towns have community food banks too, such as Blandford and Gillingham, but without volunteers they would not exist.
…and affordable solar panels
The phasing-out of domestic solar panel subsidies in recent years meant that individuals became reluctant installers, despite falling panel prices, while cash-strapped local authorities were unable to help.
However, community energy groups have sprung up with the goal of offering panels at very competitive rates. It is a growing movement in which energy generation is owned not by large industrial companies but by local communities, with the profits invested back into the community.
Last March Sustainable Swanage and community energy group, Purbeck Energy, launched a project, Solar Streets, to offer Swanage residents, as well as surrounding villages, the chance to get solar panels for their properties at discounted rates. They are using a company, IDDEA, which has already installed 1,000 panels across southern England.
The Swanage Mayor, Mike Bonfield, is fully supportive and praised it as a ‘brilliant scheme’. Swanage Town Council funds the Sustainable Swanage Projects Officer. How about some of our North Dorset towns doing the same?
Local transport schemes?
In the last decade a number of community transport schemes have got off the ground in Dorset towns and villages. This is in response to less public transport and the need to reduce rural isolation.
It would be great if government were to fund better public transport, but the chance of this happening appears remote.
Dorset Community Transport, based in Blandford, runs 50 minibuses across the county helping schools and groups. They are largely funded by Town and Parish Councils, and stepped in take over some of the bus routes which commercial operators pulled out of in 2017 after more subsidy cuts.
Bere Regis NeighbourCar offers a service run by volunteers using their own cars, for ‘anyone with transport difficulties’, while Milton Abbas runs a similar scheme. They both pay volunteers expenses.
DC now run a website to promote all community transport schemes, as well as offering £5,000 to fund new schemes.
Overall, it would be fantastic if more people came forward as volunteers so we can sustain the community spirit developed during Covid. Communities need you more than ever!
RURAL MATTERS – monthly column from the CPRE