It's become a familiar refrain in recent years: the countryside is in trouble. Farming is being pummelled by everything from globalisation to the Common Agricultural Policy and foot and mouth disease. Property prices are preventing rural people from buying houses in their own villages. Second homes are creating ghost communities, and rural shops, pubs and post offices are falling like ninepins. In short, the countryside is dying.
There are plenty of figures to back up this grim perception. Around 300 village shops a year are closing down forever; 26 pubs close every month, and it has been estimated that, for the first time since the Norman Conquest, more than half of Britain's villages are now "dry", or publess. Rural post offices are shutting at a rate of around 150 a year. Even farms, once the mainstay of village life, are disappearing, replaced by accommodation or office space as land prices soar and supermarkets squeeze farmers' margins.
But this is not the whole story. Although rural communities are in trouble all over Britain, there are plenty of people refusing to let them roll over and die. One phenomenon in particular is taking off, as rural people work to save their areas from decline and breathe life back into them: community ownership.
In an age of cut-throat globalisation, supermarket power and disintegrating villages, as it gets harder to run a small, commercial enterprise in a rural area, community owned and run services are becoming a way to inject some hope back into rural life.
As they do so, they are bringing people together, and making people all over the country realise not only that shops, pubs, farms and village halls are more than the sum of their parts, but that when communities band together, anything can happen.
In the Cumbrian village of Hesket Newmarket, the Old Crown pub has a heartening story to tell. A small, traditional rural local, with a log fire, tankards hanging from beams and the obligatory dog, the Old Crown also has its own microbrewery out the back, in an old barn, which makes 10 varieties of unique beer. Like the pub itself, the brewery is owned by the community. The Old Crown is Britain's first, and so far only, co-operatively owned pub - but it seems unlikely to be the last.
When the landlord sold up five years ago, the villagers of Hesket were worried that their only pub could either be turned into housing or sold to a less-than-sympathetic pub chain. They knew that if the pub went, much of community life would go too. So they formed a co-op, sold shares to raise sufficient money (supporters from as far afield as Australia and the US bought them) and bought out the pub.
The Old Crown's shares went for £1,500 each to 125 people, who formed the co-op which bought the pub. The co-operative was officially registered as a community industrial and provident society in March 2003. Individual shareholders don't profit from this - their share values remain the same. The pub does turn a profit, which is put back into improving it - this year a new dining extension opened, paid for by the pub's success.
Today, the Old Crown and its brewery are thriving. Julian Ross, who was one of the pioneers of this unique experiment, says he now receives calls from all over the country from others who want to keep their village pub alive and kicking. Hesket's success in saving this vital community resource has been an inspiring one.
"To me," says Julian, "it was like saying 'thus far, but no further'. So many things are now cloned, McDonald's-ised, corporatised. We were saying - whatever else you've got, you're not having our pub."
Tackley 'All in One', Oxfordshire
Gill Withers believes that community ownership could be the key to "bringing the heart back" into rural communities. Gill was the driving force behind doing just that in the Oxfordshire village of Tackley. "Five or six years ago," she says, "the village shop, post office and pub all closed down in one 18-month period. There was a feeling that the village was disintegrating, so we met in someone's house to decide what we could do about it." Out of that initial meeting came Tackley's "All In One" centre, which opened last year. Inside the revamped village hall is a new shop, a post office, a café, a computer centre and a sports facility. Now, says Gill, it's hard to imagine life in Tackley without it.
Tackley All In One cost £400,000 to develop. It took four years to raise this money, through fundraising events, donations from locals and grants from various organisations. It breaks even, with the help of volunteers who run much of it.
Gill is now head of the Village Retail Services Association, which helps villages set up and run community shops. There are currently 150 across the country, and they want to help double that number over the next five years. Gill says: "The community itself takes ownership. It wants the shop, and it influences it according to the needs of the village. If the community is behind it, it has a great chance of succeeding."
Sulgrave village shop, Northamptonshire
Sulgrave is a pretty place, a fairly typical English village with pub and green. Something else that's typical lies around the corner from the pub - what used to be the village shop and Post Office. Through the blinds you can see empty shelves, an old pair of scales and piles of uncollected post. The glass in the door is smeared with whitewash, in which someone has written, with their finger "Closed For Ever".
Rising rents and falling trade doomed Sulgrave's shop five years ago. The village also lost a gathering place, a community focus, a lifeline, even, for older villagers, and a service. It lost much of what made it a village.
Here, though, Sulgrave stops being typical. The villagers got together to set up a new, community-owned shop, a co-operative. They sold shares to local people. Today, Sulgrave Village Shop is an award-winning success story. It's co-owned by 165 shareholders. Any profits (there are none yet) will be ploughed back into the business. The shop bakes its own bread upstairs and sells local produce as well as standard groceries. It's run by a full-time manager assisted by 50 volunteers.
"The impact of the shop closure was quite surprising," says Robin Prior, one of the group who set up the new shop two years ago. "You saw fewer people wandering around the village. It started to become a sort of dormitory. When the new shop opened, all that changed. So, quite apart from the obvious economic function of the shop, its social function is hugely important."
Fordhall Farm, Shropshire
If a community ownership model can work for shops, pubs, post offices and the like, why should it not work for farmland, currently under threat from everything from the global economy to Government housebuilding targets? This was the question that the tenants of Fordhall Farm, in Shropshire, asked themselves when their pioneering organic farm came under threat two years ago. Faced with a possible hostile buyout, third-generation tenant farmers Charlotte Hollins and her brother Ben, together with local volunteers and supporters, set up the Fordhall Community Land Initiative.
A public appeal enabled them to raise £800,000 through selling shares in the farm to more than 6,500 people. Local primary school pupils contributed £7 by each giving 20p. The appeal gained national, then international, prominence - and it worked. The 123-acre farm has now been placed into a community trusteeship, and cannot be developed. Martin Large, one of the pioneers of the scheme, sees it as a beacon for others. "The Fordhall community buyout could be as significant for England as the 1996 Isle of Eigg community buyout was for Scotland," he says. "Eigg sparked the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act, which gave communities the right to buy their own land. At a time when the Government is busy privatising public land on a massive scale, Fordhall shows an alternative future."
Village Retail Services Association: www.virsa.orgReuse content