Winsham Shop and Post Office

Part 3   2016- 2020

An existential threat-or an opportunity?

The early history of Winsham Shop and Post Office is recorded in Part 1. The period from 2002, and its change into village ownership is documented in Part 2. 

In 2016, another threat appeared on the horizon, every bit as serious as that which led to the crisis in 2002, but which would prove to take much longer to resolve.

The Shop and Post Office had performed well in the first decade that followed being taken into ‘village’ ownership. Based on its network of volunteers, and a small number of paid staff, it generally met its targets for turnover and profitability and served the community well. It was a good example of how a community-owned shop should operate, but, by 2016, dark clouds were appearing on the trading horizon.

Turnover and profitability were not growing; the market was changing with the growth of discounters such as Aldi and Lidl.  The development of home delivery appealed to working families, and enabled older and disabled people, to do their weekly supermarket shop without the need to rely on the help of friends or sparse public transport. Other organisations such as Amazon were also viewing groceries and basic household products as an opportunity for expansion. Winsham Shop faced increasing competition from many directions.

SH MeetingChairman Denis McCallum, and Paula Bramley Ball, Commercial Director, explain the looming problem to the 2016 Shop AGM
held in the Jubilee Hall.

If this was not difficult enough, operating costs were threatening to increase significantly. Although the business was supported by an army of volunteers, it still needed a small core of part-time employed staff, working for the most part on the legal minimum wage. This was due to be increased, and this would have a major impact on operating costs.

A further serious concern was renewal of the lease on the shop, due in 2019, with the inevitable rent increase, however reasonable. Linked to this was the growing realisation by the shop’s management that the shop premises in their present state were not ‘fit for purpose’.

Modern food and drink retailing is dependent on refrigeration with freezers and chillers capable of displaying products and providing easy direct access to them. In turn these units need the right type of spaces in which to operate – with good ventilation, because refrigeration in cabinets heats the surrounding area. Vibration can also cause transition of noise, especially in old buildings with wooden floors.   Up to date electric wiring is also needed to meet ever stricter fire safety regulations.

Winsham Shop was found wanting in all of these requirements, causing problems for the landlords , who lived in the same building; for the shop staff who were having to work in hot, unventilated conditions;  and for the customers.  The truth is that the premises had changed very little since the mid-nineteenth century, and the day of reckoning was approaching.

 A potential solution! The Bell project:

The Bell Project

At the same time as the Shop Management Committee was facing this situation the only pub in the village ‘The Bell’ was up for sale. The popular owners, Tony and Terri Laws-Spindler wanted to retire after eighteen successful years of running The Bell, and were looking to stay in the village. 

Coincidentally, due to the number of pubs facing closure, a nationwide initiative had been launched, involving  the Plunkett Foundation, a charity which helps community-run organisations to find solutions to their many and varied problems. This initiative offered potential grants to help communities buy and run their local pubs.

Here was an opportunity that could benefit two key village assets. As part of this the Tony & Terri agreed to register The Bell as an ‘Asset of Community Value’ to help procure grants that might be sought to help it to continue as a pub.

A discussion was started with the owners of The Bell, in October, 2016, who were pleased at the prospect of a solution that could benefit themselves and Winsham Shop and Post Office, offering to help in any way they could. A public meeting was held at the Jubilee Hall in February 2017 to discuss the possibility of buying The Bell. If the pub could be purchased at the right price, the shop management committee saw many potential benefits.

Changes could incorporate the shop and Post Office premises into the existing building. The licensed pub and food business could be run by a tenant or an employed manager. There was space for car parking and delivery vehicles; it was also well located in the village centre.

The Bell' location offered many benefits, especially those of increased space, potential for diversification and better access for vehicles.

The project was looking positive with pledges of support from Winsham residents of approximately £180,000 with a good possibility of further financial support, such as grants and loans.

Unfortunately it was not to be. Some months elapsed, during which the shop’s management committee did a lot of work, but it was proving difficult for Winsham Shop to continue with the negotiation. A no blame situation–basically, the arithmetic did not suggest a viable outcome. Understandably, the work leading up to this had taken a good deal of time.

The owners of The Bell, in the context of this delay felt obliged to accept an offer from a private purchaser-the present owner. Although, at the time, this was a disappointment for the village, concerns were eased as the new buyer intended to continue with The Bell, as the village pub.

The options available for the shop were considered to be running out, and the end of Winsham Shop and Post Office began to seem a possibility, for the reasons already stated. A serious dilemma faced the Shop Management Committee. What to do next?

A few weeks later, in June 2017,  ‘The George’ was identified as a possible solution. Located on the corner of Back Street, just across the road from the existing shop promises, it had for many years been one of the three pubs in the village, until it closed in the 1970s and was converted into a house.  It had been rented out for many years and the existing tenants were about to leave.  The owner of The George was approached and was prepared to work with the Shop Committee towards a potential sale.

The George Project:

The George was large enough to accommodate an expanded Shop and Post Office business, which would enable it to enlarge the range of products and services provided.  There was also the potential to increase turnover by providing a cafe.  Upstairs space might be let commercially.  The Shop Management Committee drew up a business plan and held open sessions in ‘The George’ in order to assess potential support. The key challenges were to gain support, acquire funding and acquire ‘change of use status from South Somerset District Council’

An artist’s impression of how

Winsham Shop might look

Agreement was forthcoming from Winsham Parish Council and the two public meetings held in July 2017 and 2018 (a revised scaled-down plan removed commercial use for the upper floor).

By autumn 2017 a business plan and share issue resulted in over £300,000 being pledged by local residents. In addition to Social Investment Tax Relief status was awarded to this investment from HMRC - a considerable achievement. A planning application to SSDC for change of use followed.

During 2018, of all letters received by SSDC regarding this project, over 90% were in favour.  However, The George proposal was not supported by everyone.

Some village based groups objected for a variety of reasons. The shop committee was given pre-application advice by SSDC that the location of the George presented road safety concerns but the Shop Management Committee felt confident that steps could be taken to overcome these concerns in their Planning Application.  Some objectors supported the SSDC pre-planning opinion. There were genuine concerns relating to safe pedestrian, and vehicle access to the proposed new location.  Others argued about the viability of the business plans. Some felt that the existing location in Church Street could be structurally updated.

Alternatives were suggested, including the possibility of building a new shop on the Upper Recreation ground; another proposal integrating it into St Stephen’s Church in some way. However, in the absence of any supporting business plans,  having addressed these ideas, the Winsham Shop Management Committee felt unable to progress with them in the light of their experience of the many factors involved in running a viable community shop & post office. Furthermore, time was getting short and they felt that they had found the only viable solution.

The problems facing the Shop Management Committee should not be underrated. The basic viability of the business was of serious concern. A new business plan seemed unavoidable, yet the existing location in Church Street had many problems. At the same time the support by many village residents for the shop and post office to move to 'The George' location was evidenced by the size of the pledged financial support, encouraged them to pursue The George Project. It seemed to the committee that ' The George' was the only option.

In February 2019, the application for change of use of 'The George' went before the Area West Planning meeting held at Chard Guildhall .The planning officer’s report proposed rejecting the proposal based on highways concerns, despite knowing that the vast majority of residents, and  significantly,  the County Highways department had no issue with this.

Many Winsham residents attended the meeting to demonstrate their support for the proposals. One count showed that some 140 were present.

Those not in agreement were also represented, although not in such large numbers. The planning committee heard seven statements each from both sides.  One in favour was from Winsham Parish Council. One of the statements against made a suggestion for the Upper Recreation Ground as a potential future location.

The Planning Officer, his Highways Consultant and objectors convinced the Planning Committee that the road safety risk was too high and that there were other possible locations for the shop – despite the Shop Committee having clearly stated in their planning application that all other viable options had been explored.

Change of use was refused by a vote of 8 to 5 councillors.  The Shop Committee felt there were strong grounds for appeal, and links to the relevant communications relating can be found below. However, the Planning Inspectorate did not agree and upheld the decision at end of August 2019.

Click HERE-Letter of support for project to Area West Planning, SSDC from Winsham Parish Council

Click HERE-Grounds for Appeal-from Winsham Shop

Click HERE-Winsham Shop's notice of Appeal to SSDC

Click HERE- The Appeal Decision-from the Planning Inspectorate

End of the story? Not quite... Follow Part 4 by clicking HERE

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