Training: Drive to get villagers in back of the shop: Help is being offered to vanishing rural storekeepers

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THE THREAT of closure in the next two years hangs over one of every two shops in Britain's villages, according to recent surveys by the Rural Development Commission.

In an attempt to forestall this, and the resulting damage to remote communities, the RDC has produced a training package and launched a retail advisory service aimed at keeping shopkeepers in business.

Village shops have suffered a series of blows in recent years and many have closed. In six out of every 10 small villages, there is no longer an open store. Among the factors being blamed are the level of business rates, the cost of freehold properties and the expense of meeting hygiene standards.

The RDC pointed out, too, that many shops were bought by people who did not prepare adequately, or who did not recognise the work involved in running a business. Adding to the bleak picture are threats to rural pharmacies and sub-post offices from changes proposed in the NHS remuneration system and a campaign by the Department of Social Security to encourage pensioners and others to have their benefits paid directly into bank accounts, instead of collecting them at the post-office counter.

The actions taken by the RDC, a government agency set up to promote economic and social well-being in the countryside, are designed to help shopkeepers become better at business. The training package was developed with the Co-operative College and is backed up by the consultancy operation, which will cost pounds 15,000 this year and pounds 30,000 next.

The programme recommends that shopkeepers be inventive in efforts to make their businesses viable. Suggestions include broadening operations by providing fax and photocopying facilities, and selling library and tourist services.

Radical measures are also encouraged to increase involvement by the local community. These can include operating a reverse credit scheme; asking villagers to buy bonds to refinance the business; or even converting the shop into a voluntary service.

Anne-Marie Sewell, spokeswoman for the RDC, said: 'We are taking it out to the shopkeepers who do not have the time to go out and study, because they have to work late to survive. Things like stock control and the new environmental health laws may not have been considered before the shop was taken on.'

She said many shopkeepers had an idyllic vision of a rural shop as a form of semi-retirement. Instead, they found long hours, often under stress. And the cost of failure is high not only for the shopkeepers but also for the community. One RDC survey showed that only 27 per cent of villages have a daily bus service, meaning that residents who do not have cars will be stranded if the village shop closes. The stores are also the source of some 40,000 jobs.

Village stores are more than just a convenience, Ms Sewell said, they are also vital in ensuring that villages remain communities. 'Villages have got to be places where people can live and work.'

(Photograph omitted)