You might know this place from the movies (well, the Transition Movie 2.0), or from the recent Hairy Biker series that helped establish a meals on wheels service. Or even a setting for Last of the Summer Wine or Where the Heart is.
It’s got quite a profile for a small place – Slaithwaite (say Slathwaite to look slightly less like a southern softie) has just 5,000 residents and a small high street with around 10 independent shops and a Co-op supermarket.
It’s the only village in England with a canal running alongside its main street, and is in the Colne Valley, once a major centre for wool and where the industrial revolution initially took off, with a few remaining textile businesses today.
Right in the middle of the high street sits the Green Valley Grocer (GVG), a community owned co-operative that took over the old green-grocers’ business when he could no longer keep it going. With the serious involvement of Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Towns (MASTT) local people decided they wanted to keep a green-grocer in their town, set up a community owned co-op, and raised £20,000 to take over the premises.
It now sells local produce – fruit and veg, preserves, cakes and so on – and has made a small profit in its second and third years of trading. It employs local people and also some volunteers contribute time. It certainly helps that Jon and Graham (two of the co-operative’s elected directors) have a strong background in co-operatives and food retail, and MASTT itself is set up as a co-operative body and company limited by guarantee.
We talk briefly about co-ops and how there are only 5,500 co-operatives in the UK, although this number is growing. To put this in context, there are 3,000 small businesses in Totnes and surrounding area alone. I learn from Graham that in Italy co-ops pay less tax, and instead pay the Italian co-op federation for the support and development work that grows the co-op movement there. Is this kind of support ever possible here in the UK?
Jane, who was working in the shop when I visited, explained how her own cake baking business has grown from the demand created by the shop, and other local suppliers are also benefitting.
Jon sold 400 figs last year for £100, a nice bit of pocket money for things that he would normally struggle to give away. Local growers and hobbyists are encouraged to bring produce to the shop which will be sold if the quality is right.
Even so, Graham explained that it’s a challenge to source enough local produce in terms of range and quantity.
Rumours of Morrisons taking over a derelict mill site just over the road could significantly impact the GVG, and we talk about how it could compete. Graham feels that either the shop needs to expand and offer more of a choice and competitive pricing, or to focus more on its niche – local food for local people who want more than the large supermarket shopping experience. Angela tells me how the GVG has transformed the town, in her experience, that people stop and chat and are more connected, making a visit to the town centre more appealing.
We reflect rather dismally on the thorny issue of large supermarkets. We are not yet in the world where oil prices are so high that their global food system sourced products are more expensive than local products (other than seasonal fresh fruit and veg, but sometimes not even then). Jon talked about his experience of sourcing products where frozen organic peas from China were more financially viable for a retailer, than organic broccoli grown 30 miles away.
While there are always exceptions to this, where local seasonal produce can be sold more cheaply than the big 6, too often this is not the case. This issue is a very live one here, where a local permaculture growing enterprise called Edibles (started by a MASTT person) is producing bagged salads. Edibles and GVG cannot agree between them a price at which the shop feels the bags will sell, and at which the producer can cover their own costs.
Despite much hard work on both sides, it’s proving extremely difficult to make inter-trading work and keep both businesses viable.
It’s a powerful reminder of how margins are key for financial sustainability of both parties, and that human relations – our ability to stay in connection while in difference – are the key to making things work and can often give great difficulty.
The Handmade Bakery has a strong connection to GVG. The supportive relationship between the shop and bakery, who shared permises for a while, provided an important, perhaps even critical, leg-up to the bakery in its first year. Dan – one of the founders – was also a founding member of MASTT. Also a co-operative model, it raises community money to invest in premises and business operations, and pays interest in bread – a bread bond.
A year ago it moved out of the back of the GVG’s shop and into large custom-fitted premises with space for a café, supplied by a lovely veg garden out the front (quite the nicest one I’ve seen on all my travels despite the dire summer – all down to good drainage and minimal slugs according to Michael).
They supply bread products to the shop and with their new production capacity are selling wholesale to city based outlets such as Unicorn Grocery in Manchester. Russell, the bakery manager, stressed the importance of the café to the financial model, but the location is not ideal for passing trade and they are looking at how to address this.
Given there are 3 key local food sector businesses in place (a grower, a baker and a shop), will this help the fragile, fledgling local food system compete with the likely Morrisons?
They hope that the investment/membership model will help secure their customers’ loyalty, but are not convinced this is the case. Perhaps a big recruitment drive for new members will provide more security? Graham notes that the original ‘sexy’ incentive to join as a member – to save the local grocer, or start a local baker – is no longer there for new members, and the challenge is how to encourage the other few thousand people in the town to support this local food system.
Kirklees Council are superficially supportive of the shop, but appear too stuck in the current economic paradigm to be actively looking to work with MASTT to do more economic work. We suspect this is not helped by their likely assumption that GVG and the like are token small scale business, not able to compete with the usual plan A of attracting large employers to the area.
However, so far nine FTE jobs have been created, with no investment by the council, in these 3 small businesses. Work like the Economic Evaluation (which I have not yet missed an opportunity to mention) will hopefully provide a model that can demonstrate the potential value of a re-localised food economy, among other sectors, and help get it taken seriously and before there is no choice.
A large mill building in the town (of which there are loads up and down the valley, mostly all derelict) is being re-developed by private investors including 3M, aiming to create a new technology innovation centre.
While there’s certainly scope for this kind of innovation and job growth in any local economy, especially if its aimed at low carbon solutions, we can imagine what could be done with that money if it were focused on sectors that do more than just provide jobs, that really contribute to the resilience of the community. Sighs all round.
MASTT has no formal business development strategy in place, these businesses have emerged opportunistically and while it’s a great start, we talk about whether this is enough to do what’s needed to deliver on MASTT’s aims. Graham and Jon feel there is potential for much more, but there’s a lack of capacity. However a reshaped Kirklees Environment Partnership, in which the GVG, MASTT and Edibles all participate, has the development and promotion of a local food strategy as one its goals.
So again, this theme of capacity and resources raises its head. They may look at some strategic work in a year or so, when a couple of the key players are back from overseas. The intent to grow the number of people involved in the local Transition group is ubiquitous, and an intention here too. Other local groups are also active, for example the Valley Wind Co-operative in Kirklees.
Jon’s summary of where MASTT is at, is that it’s shifted it’s focus from food to energy and recycling as the 3 food cooperative businesses are now set up. They ran a large energy project earlier in the year, commissioning the Green Building Company to look at draughty old houses and decide what could be done, and holding a big energy festival to raise the profile of this and other ways of thriving on less energy. They are currently paying for some members to go on a Recycling course with the intention of setting up some sort of recycling project, maybe even a new coop business… “this has proved to be the best way to get more people involved – no-one wants to come to endless meetings”…
But as everywhere, it’s a small band with limited resources and a huge agenda.
(And sorry, no candlestick maker there yet! I just liked the title).
Main image: Graham Mitchell and Jon Walker outside the GVG.