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Special report: How community spirit pays a dividend

A Cumbrian town shows how co-operatively owned businesses can keep remote areas alive and thriving

Alston, England's highest market town, sitting in north-east Cumbria, is so remote that it will take you 20 miles to reach it from the nearest big town. Its parish is deemed so rural that big companies refuse to supply it with high-speed broadband.

But this community made up of 2,100 people will make its mark on British history this week. Alston Moor will become Britain's first certified "Social Enterprise Town". The former mining hub, famous as a stop-off for cyclists on their tour of the Pennines, is being heralded as a "trailblazer" for a "new era of social innovation in Britain."

The parish – made up of Alston town and the villages of Garrigill and Nenthead – lost its lead mines in the 1950s. Thirty years later, the largest employer in the area – a foundry employing more than 200 – closed its doors. It is noted as having "high" socio-economic needs, made worse by the fact that the town is virtually cut off from the rest of the country during bad winters; even in summer, buses are few and far between.

But it has a trump card: its community. When BT refused to provide up-to-date internet without government subsidies, Alston Moor set up its own community-owned co-operative, Cybermoor, to provide broadband. Residents bought shares in the company and local labour dug up the roads to install the fibre cable needed. In the next month, it is hoped 300 homes will have high-speed broadband.

When Nenthead's shop closed down – making it difficult to get a pint of milk as the last bus leaves at 2.30pm – the community rallied round to raise funds to set up its own store, which has been running for five years. These are just two of almost 20 social enterprises in the parish – from a bakery and gymnasium to a community snowplough and heritage railway station, all run largely by volunteers.

All the organisations trade, but the rule is they must benefit the community and funnel their profits back into it. More than 50 jobs are supported by the sector; hundreds of volunteers are involved, and a £1.5m turnover is generated each year. People from as far as China have visited the parish to attend what have been dubbed "social enterprise safaris".

"There's such a self-help mentality here that we joke there's something in the soil. This could have been the place that people forgot, but the community wants it to be as vibrant as possible," said Sue Gilbertson, 51, a local resident and Cybermoor employee. "We realised BT was never going to give us fibre-optic broadband and we were sick of false promises, so we took control ourselves. There's no point moaning. We've just got to get it done."

It is this sort of pragmatism that led judges of the Social Enterprise Awards UK to describe Alston Moor as "a model to be copied in other small areas". Gareth Thomas, Labour's spokesperson on civil society affairs, will officially declare the town the first of its kind this Thursday. "Alston Moor could be the trailblazer for a new era of social innovation in Britain – getting the public sector to work more closely with social enterprises, charities and co-operatives to create jobs, keep money in communities and tackle inequality," he told The Independent on Sunday. "We now need banks to respond, to be more willing to lend to social enterprises in communities they wouldn't otherwise invest in."

While Alston Moor has been supported by Cumbria County Council and other initiatives, its success derives largely from the commitment of residents. When cuts meant the public toilets were going to be closed down, volunteers stepped in to run them. When the county council wants to clear the low-priority roads of snow, it uses a second-hand tractor that villagers converted into the community snowplough.

Meryl Baker, 66, founder of the workers' co-operative Moody Bakers, has come out of retirement twice to keep her store open. "I do this because I love doing it – not for the money," she says, before admitting that she often works 10-hour days. "It's important to be a part of Alston; being part of the community is like a service." She often employs local young people, and shifts can be passed from sibling to sibling. Tim Angier, 16, has worked there every Saturday for the past two months. He said: "It's a really good atmosphere. Your decision is counted, and if you've got an idea, they take it into account."

Ms Baker's partner, Pip, is more pragmatic about the bakery: "It's the only way to run a business here – you've just got to keep going." The local wholefood shop is also co-operatively owned, with seven members working one day a week. Member Joy Hutton is an accountant as well as shopkeeper, while another, Rosemary Sawyer, 72, is retired. "We're often cut off from transport links, but the idea is to try to provide customers who live here with what they want," Ms Sawyer said.

Angela Green, 65, lives in Nenthead and spends most mornings manning the community-owned shop and its post office. She set up the store five years ago after the former owners closed its doors. The community raised £10,000 for its launch by selling 100 shares locally. "This town is so isolated, and we know if we don't do it, no one else will," she said. "But it doesn't come from a sense of neglect; it's always been within the people. If we want something, we get up and do it."

Emmy Angier, 15, spends much of her free time at the town hall, doing karate. While she is hoping to study law at university, she said she hopes to return when she is older to Alston. "There's loads of things to do here. It's safe and it has a good atmosphere," she said. "It's good it's being recognised."

Get involved

The Independent on Sunday is delighted to be the headline sponsor of the UK Social Enterprise Awards 2013. The awards, in their 15th year, celebrate the pioneering work of Britain's 68,000-strong social enterprise movement – businesses that are regenerating communities and changing lives. The awards also recognise five social-enterprise champions – people who deserve recognition for their achievements.

Readers of The IoS are brilliant at spotting such talent, as the annual Happy List proves. There will be more details next week but, meanwhile, if you know of an extraordinary individual in your community or workplace who is worthy of a social enterprise award, get ready to nominate them for champion status.

* The UK Social Enterprise Awards 2013 are open for entries and nominations until 6 August. Visit socialenterprise.org.uk for information. Royal Bank of Scotland Group, BP and PwC also support the awards