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Parish Council Spotlight: The Story of the new Wellington Shop


Background

Wellington is one of the largest villages in Herefordshire – there are over 450 houses in the parish and a core of around 350 in the main village and close vicinity.  The village is growing with a new development of 12 homes just completed and a planning application in for 20 more which, when added to infills, brings growth of almost 10% in the last two years alone.

Historically there were a number of shops in the village, including a dairy and a general store but these had dwindled to one shop and post office combined – but as by early 2009 this was open only in the mornings, it was no real surprise to be told in September 2009 that the owner wished to close the business as he no longer found it viable.

It was not an option to try to buy that building and find someone to run a shop from it as the owner wished to absorb the premises into his own living accommodation which at the time was a flat above. The premises were also very confined so any special development of the business was not possible.

It is worth noting that, due to a lack of available volunteers and a lack of expertise, the thing that makes this project different is that the shop was to be run as a commercial venture and not as a not for profit venture. In turn, that made obtaining funding more difficult than it might have been with little interest from grant funders for a commercial venture.

Volunteer support

In September 2009 two open parish meetings were called by Wellington Parish Council supported by Ward Councillor Adrian Blackshaw, Anthony Bush (Parish liaison and rural services officer at Herefordshire Council) and Ken Parsons of the Rural Shops Alliance.

At the second of the meetings (this one held without the existing shopkeeper present allowing more ‘freedom of opinion’ it was agreed to form a working group comprising of volunteers including parish councillors to investigate options.

Shop in Wellington Action Group (SWAG) held an inaugural meeting at the end of September and invited a local shopkeeper from a neighbouring village to attend. At that meeting that shopkeeper expressed an interest in running another shop in addition to his own, if suitable premises could be found.

Of key importance was continuity of the post office. A commercial transfer without a trading break was the only way of safeguarding that service. Closure of any sort would mean a loss of the post office for good.

With a willing shopkeeper on board, SWAG took the view that it would progress that option rather than take the more conventional not-for-profit community led route.

Options for premises were somewhat limited but a long-standing resident and local farmer was approached to see if he would be willing to provide an unused building in a farmyard. The building had previously been used as a kitchen fitting showroom but was vacant and was being used for various Church and community group meetings, as well as by a tenant running a small ‘disco-lighting/sound’ business. It became the venue where the SWAG group would meet each Monday evening for several months and was available without charge to the group.

However, the farmyard already had planning permission for residential development so it was known that it could only be a temporary move.

By the end of October 2009 a questionnaire, which had a return of over 50%, had been delivered to every house in the parish to ascertain levels of support, type of stock etc, giving the Group the confidence to proceed.

Six months of hard work

From October to the late spring of 2010 there was frenzied activity:

Applying for planning permission for change of use for the building, obtaining grant funding from via Rural Shops Improvement Grant from Herefordshire Council and match funding from the parish council, an increase to the parishoners precept to help fund the project, acquiring fixtures and fittings including purchasing the relevant post office electronic ‘counter’, arranging transfer of the post office operation including public consultation, negotiating donated surfacing material to create a car park and a myriad other tasks. Not least of these was drawing up formal leases between the building owner and the parish council and the parish council and the shopkeeper.

The owner of the previous shop stayed open throughout the whole process in order that the post office transfer could take place without a break, without his agreement to do that we most certainly would have lost the post office.

But there’s more work to come...

Against the backdrop of all the work done thus far was the knowledge that the premises could only be temporary and that new premises would be needed before the end of 2011 – an ambitious target which proved to be unattainable.

During the autumn of 2010 work began to identify other potential sites or buildings which could be used – given the linear nature of Wellington and the lack of land centrally there quickly became only one option identified – an area of green land in the dead-centre of the village owned by Wellington Chapel. Negotiations with the Chapel led to an agreement from their Elders that they would be willing to lease the land to the parish council for a nominal sum for 99 years. As a charity they have to prove to the Charity Commissioners that they maximise their assets but this case was looked upon favourably as it was a philanthropic gesture to the community.

The shop at Stocks Farm Barn opened on Saturday 26 June 2010 to launch the Wellington Fun Week.

By early January 2011 the incumbent shopkeeper decided that the business was not viable and gave the parish council a non-negotiable resignation effective Thursday 21 April 2011.

With a lease on the building expiring and a resigning shopkeeper things were not looking good and on Thursday 24 March 2011 an Open Parish Meeting was called to address the residents and agree a way forward – if indeed there was to be a way forward. Keeping the community in the know was key.

Meanwhile the parish council was pursing the potential to raise money to build on the land available at the Chapel but without spending any of the parish money.

But, just after the resignation, the parish council was introduced to a new shopkeeper interested in developing the Wellington shop.

Post Office bad news

As if to hamper the new negotiations, the post office announced that the basis of remuneration would change from being a salaried position to one based on turnover resulting in a considerable loss of guaranteed income. As his sales forecasts and profitability predictions were based on a post office salary, it no longer worked as a viable proposition for the interested shopkeeper and he withdrew his expression of interest.

Faced with no shop and no post office the options given to the parishioners were:

  • Give up (not really an option)
  • Attract another shopkeeper (how?)
  • Volunteer run shop (works in other parishes)
  • Shop within local garden centre or pub (pub business not stable at this stage and garden centre changing hands)
  • Mobile shop (last resort)

The voted outcome of the meeting was to look at the potential for a volunteer run shop using the current premises and at the meeting a steering group was formed to look into this. Unfortunately after one meeting this group felt it could not continue to investigate that option.

But there was to be some good news… another shopkeeper with a business in Hereford had heard of the scenario and was interested in taking over in Wellington. The shop and post office were then closed for three months, after much discussion, the shop reopening under new management mid June 2011.

The post office remained closed for a further six months until negotiations and training could take place to enable a Post Office Local to open – quite a triumph to lose a post office and get one opened again!

The new owner introduced local produce to the shop, extended the opening hours and worked with the local primary school to give the shop its name - Wellington Delights. The shop was becoming successful under the new management and appeared as it if was now a viable proposition to consider significant parish investment.

Putting it to the vote

By November 2011 the parish council was in a position to go back to its residents with a proposal for a new building (happily the landlord of Stocks Farm Barn was content to continue to allow the shop to operate, having let his planning application lapse rather than there be no shop in the parish).

Presenting the facts that land was available to lease in the centre of the village but that it would need to have a flood risk analysis prepared which was potentially costly given its proximity to Wellington Brook, and that it would be a complex operation to get planning permission and potential funding, the residents were asked for a mandate for the parish council to proceed to investigate the project.

In preparation for the meeting, some work had been done with a local architect (with no fee involved) and budget figures put together resulting in a potential budget of £280,000 to be funded via grant funding and/or a loan from Public Works Loan Board. Loan repayments would be partially met by the rent from the shopkeeper but the parishioners would have to expect an increase in their precept. Figures were provided at the meeting to show the effect per household council tax band on the precept which based on the bands at the time meant 15p per week for band A and 46p per week for band H.

242 voting slips were handed out of which 221 said yes, 11 no and 10 spoilt.

The project was not to be without its opponents, with fears of flooding widely exaggerated requiring additional diligence from the parish council through the ensuing process. The parish council was well aware of the nature of the opposition and thus agreed to exercise absolute diligence in every aspect of the project even if it meant that things did not move as swiftly as might have been hoped.

From here to the end...

The new building opened in May 2014 which looking backs seems like an inordinate amount of time, having obtained a mandate back at the end of 2011.

During the two and a half years, the project was handled by a Shop Working Group which was formed as a task and finish group of the parish council.

Briefly, the project comprised:

Seeking costs from a qualified company to produce a flood risk assessment – preparing a brief, appointing, and subsequently receiving, a report. In the event this report, in addition to being submitted to the Environment Agency for comment and approval, also had to be sent by the EA for external approval, given the nature of the objections received. Work on this commenced in early February 2012 and the final report was received August 2012.

Entering the appropriate legal tendering process for the appointment of an architect/project manager (aided by Hoople). Interviewing, appointing and briefing same on the requirements of the building and the constraints of the site (June 2012).

Finalising the legal agreement with the Chapel and becoming party to a formal lease.

Getting quantity surveyors base costs to ensure the building would be affordable within the intended budget based on the architects drawings.

Engaging with the community throughout including making plans available for discussion and comment.

Submitting an application for planning approval and allowing it to take its course through the process (applied November 2012, granted March 2013).

Entering into the appropriate advertising and subsequent tendering process to appoint a builder (June and July 2013) following refinement of the requirements including meetings with the post office to ensure compliance with their standards.

Submission of an application to Public Works Loan Board for a maximum of £250,000 including preparation of a business case and options analysis to show that other avenues of housing for a shop had been investigated.

Applying for (and obtaining) funding from Awards for All to the value of £8,750) and Veolia Environmental Trust (£15,000) to offset some core costs as well as fund equipping parish room. Section 106 money was also obtained directly to the parish from a housing development at Parsonage Fields (£10,000) and there is an additional £21,500 to come from another development at Church House Farm. We were successful in lobbying Herefordshire Council for the 106 money to come directly to the parish ring-fenced for the project. This is the first time that 106 funding has come directly to us.

Building work started in late 2013 just as the wettest winter on record started but despite everything that nature threw at the project the building was effectively finished on time in March 2014 with the only delays being as a result of utility connections which proved to be a nightmare. Major utilities versus small parish council; persistance won through with the help of Herefordshire Council and personal contacts.

The strength of community action

Wellington Parish Council remains indebted to Wellington Chapel (for the land), The Makin Family (for a much extended lease on the barn), the original SWAG (Shop in Wellington Action Group) volunteers without whom the whole project would not have been started, Herefordshire Council and all the parishioners who believed in the parish council’s ability to handle the project and who continue to support the business of Wellington Delights.

Click here to view a Storify about Wellington shop.

Words by Jenni Gowan, Chairman, Wellington Parish Council.

Tags: Community and living