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The history of Winchelsea's community-owned shop and post office

In 2000, Winchelsea lost its sub post office and, in 2001, a fire threatened to finish off the last remaining village shop. However, in both cases, residents decided to act. In February 2002, a completely refurbished, re-equipped and re-stocked shop re-opened under community ownership. In January 2004, a new sub post office opened in the same building. A Community Office was also opened in 2005 to provide other services to the community and to support the shop and post office.

The shop prospered (turnover leapt to almost £250,000 a year and the business maintained a gross margin of over 20%) and, even more than before, became the day-to-day hub of the community. Moreover, the shop created a certain buzz in the community. Not only had we saved our shop, but we had a shop to be proud of (as various awards demonstrated) and it was ours. The business proved to be financially viable in terms of operating income, although finances were strained by large and unexpected increases in rent (by a landlord who had been able to buy the shop building from the National Trust cheaply on the basis that he would retain the shop). It was clear that any future capital expenditure would have required further grants or new capital from residents, but this was not perceived to be a problem. The only real challenge was getting enough people to join the management committee who were willing and able to provide the necessary financial control and day-to-day supervision (Winchelsea is small and over half the population is retired).

The post office also prospered and its turnover quickly exceeded the expectations of Post Office Ltd. Unlike the shop, it was accepted that the post office would never generate a surplus, but the operating deficit was easily covered by fund-raising in the community.

In 2007, the building in which the shop, post office and Community Office were located was sold to a private owner, who made an offer for the shop and post office businesses. The offer was accepted by the community on the basis of a public commitment by the prospective purchasers to keep the businesses open. The value of the businesses was recognised in the sale price, which was calculated by an independent valuation agent at £38,500, and was sufficient to repay debentures (non-interest-bearing perpetual loans made by residents) and leave a substantial surplus. The surplus was set aside as a contingency fund against the risk that the new owner would tire of the businesses and the community would have to step in again. There were reservations about the sale, but there was felt to be no real alternative given problems in the management committee.

Unfortunately, the shop under private ownership does not attract the same level of support as when it was under community ownership and the business seems to have lost its way. However, Winchelsea still has a shop and post office, unlike many of its much larger neighbours.

This webpage is a record of Winchelsea's community ventures which we hope will be of use to other villages seeking to preserve their local facilities.

Little Shop Logo

The Little Shop is Winchelsea's general store. We are lucky to have it. Many neighbouring villages have lost their shops.

Winchelsea too almost lost its shop. In September 2001, it actually closed. However, a group of residents succeeded in re-opening it as community-owned business. The new business started trading in February 2002.

How we saved our Little Shop?
The shop was run on behalf of the community by an Industrial and Provident Society (which is a special type of limited-liability, not-for-profit company --- see our constitution) called the Winchelsea Little Shop Association Ltd in which some 370 residents and non-residents had each bought one £10 share. Many shareholders also made loans and donations. This money, together with grants from the Countryside Agency and other bodies, was used to pay for the refurbishment, refitting and restocking of the shop.

The Little Shop after the fire of September 2001 The Little Shop after the fire of September 2001

It took a huge amount of work to rescue the Little Shop. We received helpful advice from organisations like ViRSA and AiRS, and vital financial assistance from the Countryside Agency and Rother District Council, but there was little or no interest from bodies like Icklesham Parish Council.

Who ran the Little Shop?
The Little Shop used to be run day-to-day by two full-time and one part-time adult staff, assisted at weekends by four youngsters. The members of staff were in turn supported by a team of volunteers, who did everything from filling shelves to putting out the rubbish, and were essential to the running of the shop. The business was supervised by a voluntary Management Committee elected at the AGM held in March each year.

Why we were so proud of our Little Shop
Winchelsea was indeed very proud of its Little Shop. It put most other small shops (and many larger ones) to shame. It was clean, bright and, although it was small (about 200 sq.ft.), it was incredibly well-stocked (about 2,500 lines). It carried a lot of specialities, many locally-sourced, including a wonderful range of incredibly fresh bread from the celebrated Rye Bakery, delicious smoked fish and meats from the Weald Smokery, ice cream from Willett's Farm and, in the summer, fabulous mixed organic salad leaves from Appledore. Fruit and vegetables, milk and bread were delivered to the shop six days a week. And the shop was open 362 days a year.

The Little Shop was not a convenience store just for top-up shopping. It allowed residents to live very comfortably in Winchelsea for a quite long period without having to drive to and fight their way around a crowded supermarket.

For some residents, the shop was nothing less than a vital amenity that allowed them to continue to live an independent life in Winchelsea. For everyone, the Little Shop was the hub of day-to-day life in the Town: it was where you met other residents and picked up local news. And the mere existence of the Little Shop added at least 10% to the value of houses!

Why the Little Shop was so important to us
The shop had an important impact on the local economy. It was estimated that it contributed a staggering £100,000 a year --- all from 200 sq.ft. --- by buying locally and through the employment of local staff and contractors. Moreover, it probably reduced car trips from Winchelsea to supermarkets by about 40%, so it made a significant environmental impact.

Are you trying to save your village shop?
If you live in a village which is about to lose or has already lost its shop, you may be interested in reading a case study of our experience. You can look at our original prospectus (which convinced many residents to support the venture and was vital in securing our set-up grants) and the audited accounts of the WLSA Ltd:

You are also welcome to call us on 01797 224446. Ask to speak to a member of the Management Committee (which remains in existence to manage the contingency fund).

Winchelsea's community-owned post office

The Winchelsea sub post office was closed in 2000 upon the retirement of the subpostmaster. Its loss was greatly felt in the community. We lost not only convenient postal services, but also a community hub.

In 2003, the Winchelsea Community Office approached Post Office Ltd to discuss ways of re-introducing limited postal services to Winchelsea. Fortuitously, the government had agreed to pay Post Office Ltd a rural subsidy aimed at preserving and even expanding the rural post office network. Winchelsea became one of beneficiaries of this policy.

In January 2004, a new sub post office was opened in Winchelsea. It was located in the same building as the Little Shop, although entered through another door. The new sub post office opens from 9:00am to 1:30pm from Monday to Friday.

The Community Office paid the rent for the sub post office for its first 15 months of operation. The payment of rent by the sub post office materially assisted the Little Shop, which would otherwise have struggled to pay the whole amount.

For less mobile residents, the sub post office is a lifeline, but it is also a valuable amenity for all residents, as it avoids trips into Rye just to use the post office there. It is also a great convenience for local clubs and societies, and businesses, as it is possible to bank at the Post Office with Alliance & Leicester, Barclays Bank, cahoot, the Co-op Bank, Lloyds TSB and smile.
Like the Little Shop, the new sub post office was set up as an Industrial and Provident Society, in this case, called the Winchelsea Community Post Office Association Ltd, with its own shareholders and management committee.

A major innovation in the new sub post office was the screenless counter. This was introduced for use in small post offices and takes up much less room than the old-fashioned fortress counter. It is doubtful we could have fitted a fortress counter into the available premises. Although fortress counter look more secure, screenless counters are in fact safer. This is because there is very little cash kept in the till in a screenless counter. As cash accumulates, it is put into a temporary safe which is protected by a time lock. At the end of the day, the doors into the sub post office door are firmly locked and cash is moved to a larger safe until it can be collected by armoured van. Both safes are bolted to the floor and have alarms attached.

In May 2007, the sub post office was purchased by a private owner as part of the deal to buy the Little Shop. Once the shop was sold, it was felt that the sub post office could not continue as before. A public commitment was secured from the prospective owner to keep the sub post office open. The surplus funds of the Winchelsea Community Post Office Association Ltd have been combined with those of the WLSA Ltd in a contingency fund that could be used to finance a community take-over of the shop and sub post office should the new owner tire of the businesses.

In December 2007, Post Office Ltd announced that Winchelsea sub post office would not be cut as part of its culling of the post office network. This is a measure of the success of this community-inspired venture.

If you are interested in community-owned sub post offices, you can look at the audited accounts for the Winchelsea Community Post Office Association Ltd:

AGM, 20 April 2013

The next AGM will be held at 10:00am in the New Hall. Only shareholders are entitled to attend. The agenda and other papers are being sent out to shareholders. Draft accounts for 2011/12 can be downloaded here.

AGM, 14 April 2012

The meeting re-elected Ben Chishick, Catherine Comotto, David Morris and Mike Terry to the Management Committee for 2012/13. There were no other candidates.

AGM, 9 April 2011

The meeting re-elected Ben Chishick, Catherine Comotto, David Morris and Mike Terry to the Management Committee for 2011/12. There were no other candidates.

Proposal to dissolve the WLSA

In 2010, a proposal was received from Management Committee members, Simon Bevan, Tony Davis, John Jessup and Frank Noah, to dissolve the WLSA and disburse its funds. At the subsequent AGM, three of these members lost their seats. However, a proposal to put the question to shareholders in a postal ballot (as required by the Rules of the WLSA)was put to a well-attended EGM on 12 February 2011.
The meeting was opened by the Chairman, Mrs Catherine Comotto, who explained that a proposal to dissolve the Association would require at least 75% of all shareholders to vote in favour in a postal ballot. This was equivalent to 251 or more votes. If 84 or more shareholders voted against the proposal or did not vote at all, the proposal would fail. She noted that a petition had been received by the Management Committee with 112 signatures opposed to the dissolution of the Association, which made it certain that the proposal would fail if put to a postal ballot.
The resolution for a postal ballot was then proposed by committee member, Mrs Anne Rumsey, who argued that the money held by the Association was not needed anymore, as it had originally been for the Little Shop. It should now be used for the benefit of the whole community "or anything else". She expressed concern that the current low level of interest rates would mean the money would be worth much less in five or ten years' time, and that the money would be "whittled away in little grants". Another committee member, David Morris, was unhappy at the idea of giving the Association's money away for no good reason and in such uncertain times. He felt that a postal ballot would be pointless given the opposition indicated by the petition. When asked by Frank Noah, former committee member and one of the original proposers of dissolution, when the money would be released if the Association was not dissolved now, Mr Morris replied that no one could be sure, as the future was uncertain, and that was the reason for keeping the money.
Mrs Peta Cameron-Clarke proposed that the Association's money be divided, with half being kept and half being donated to the New Hall, which badly needed insulating and other refurbishment.
Richard Comotto, who originally led the community project that re-opened the Little Shop in 2001, took issue with the argument that low interest rates justified the dissolution of the Association. He noted that rates had been low since late 2008 because of the banking crisis but were bound to rise again. He thought that it would be silly to permanently dispose of capital because of a temporary drop in income.
Mr Comotto saw no need to donate the Association's money to the New Hall for insulation given that grants and interest-free loans were still available for energy conservation. Grants were also on offer to village halls from two National Lottery funds and the parish council had given a grant of £40,000 to the village hall in Icklesham. Mr Comotto argued that the money was an insurance policy for the community against a future that was becoming more uncertain. It had been difficult to raise the money for the shop rescue in 2001. It would be even more difficult to raise such a sum now.
Mrs Corrinne Merricks, incorrectly claiming to represent the parish council, stated that the grant by the parish council to Icklesham Memorial Hall had been match-funded.
Mr Simon Bevan, another former committee member and also one of the original proposers of dissolution, supported dissolution on the grounds that the existence of the money was divisive. Mr Mike Terry, the Secretary of the Association, disputed this, as did many others. Mr Stephen Rumsey, current owner of the Little Shop, stated that he wished to "explain something" to shareholders. In his view, the Little Shop had been "bankrupt" and "about to close down", so the money originally raised to start the shop had been "lost". Mr Rumsey claimed that he had been asked to buy the shop and had only "reluctantly" agreed. Consequently, he stated that the money held by the Association was actually "my money", "my hard-earned cash".
The Chairman corrected Mr Rumsey, stating that the Little Shop had not been bankrupt. In fact, it had been valued by an independent professional commercial valuation agent at £38,500. This was the price that Mr Rumsey had paid for the business. Mr Christopher Strangeways, who had helped set up the Iden community shop, confirmed that community shops could be valuable assets. The Rye Harbour community shop had recently been sold for £60,000 and the Iden community shop for £55,000.
Mr Tony Jasper, the former freeholder of the shop building, vigorously disputed Mr Rumsey's claims. He reminded the meeting that he and his wife had saved the shop when it was first threatened with closure in 1997 and would never have allowed it to close again. He denied that Mr Rumsey had been approached and asked to buy the shop. Mr Jasper stated that, in fact, Mr and Mrs Rumsey had approached him.
Mr Melvyn Pett supported the idea of splitting the Association's money. Mr Michael de Smith suggested the Association make a loan on commercial terms over five years to the New Hall. This suggestion drew widespread support from the meeting.
Mr Noah disputed the need for the Association to hold money as a hedge against future uncertainty, claiming that there was no uncertainty about the future of any of the retail businesses in Winchelsea under Mr and Mrs Rumsey. Mrs O'Ferrell asked about the rate of loss of shareholders. The Chairman reported that the Association had lost 18% shareholders over 10 years, which was not a high annual rate of loss.
A vote was then taken by ballot. The result was 24 votes in favour of a postal ballot and 49 votes against. The resolution was therefore lost.

Election of the WLSA management committee for 2010/11

The following votes were cast for the 12 candidates who stood for the eight seats on the committee. The votes recorded below were corrected following a check which revealed a mistake on one of the tally sheets.

Alexander, Tina 29 not elected
Bevan, Simon 39 elected
Chishick, Ben 50 elected
Comotto, Catherine 51 elected
Davis, Tony 39 elected
Dunk, John 41 elected
Jessup, John 37 not elected
Morris, David 48 elected
Noah, Frank 34 not elected
Rumsey, Anne 40 elected
Simpson, Anne 36 not elected
Terry, Mike 42 elected