When the shop that serves the Hillswick area of Shetland closed its doors in early 2009 the impact was profound; a trip out for a pint of milk for some residents turned into a near 30 mile journey and the 150 households in the area lost their central meeting point. When the shop re-opened under the ownership of Northmavine Community Development Company in November 2009 it quickly resumed its role at the heart of the community: on opening day many people were heard saying to one another, "I haven't seen you for months!" NCDC operates as a Company Limited by Guarantee and the business has flourished under community ownership with sales targets for the first year met within nine months.
Hillswick is one of the five main settlements that make up Northmavine, a scattered community of around 800 people on the mainland of Shetland. Services are few and quite literally far between; Northmavine is 25 miles end to end with only one hotel and two shops. When the Hillswick shop looked like it was about to close, NCDC started discussions with the owner to ask if he might sell to them. They saw it not only as an opportunity to save a key service but also to acquire a major asset; the premises included a three bedroom house and some derelict outbuildings as well as the shop. A survey of all the households in the area backed the idea and NCDC started to raise the necessary funds.
HIE helped put together a business plan and the Community Land Unit agreed to help finance the purchase. However, delays meant the shop closed before all the money could be put in place so the whole development was put on the open market. Maree Hay, development worker with NCDC says, "We had a nail-biting wait for a loan agreement from the bank to complete the funding; it only came through on the afternoon of the day of the deadline".
As soon as NCDC got its hands on the premises, however, work started in earnest: out of the 150 households, 48 individuals stepped forward to renovate and redecorate the shop. Several "redd up nights" were held with painting and decorating going on into the small hours. Maree says, "That's the Shetland nature; we're not too interested in paperwork but give us a practical job and we'll get it done!"
The shop is run as a subsidiary company of NCDC and has several paid staff as well as some unpaid help. This voluntary input is important as it allows the shop to stay open until 7.00pm during the week, a priority in an area where so many people commute long distances to work. The house that came with the shop is also being renovated and will soon be offered for rent: Northmavine typically has 11 people chasing every house for rent so a new family home is very welcome. Consultations are also going on about options for the outbuildings: there is strong interest from the many craft people in the area for a workspace, and from commuters for some remote working facilities.
The Hillswick shop and associated developments are only one aspect of NCDC's work. The organisation was set up in 2004 with help from HIE's 'Initiative at the Edge' scheme, and has a wide remit to regenerate the area. However, it only has three employees to implement its many plans, and various time-limited grants to support them. One of its staff posts is a 'Community Powerdown Officer' whose role is to reduce carbon use in Northmavine. Part of his remit was also to set up renewable energy schemes that could bring in revenue for the longer-term, both to pay for staff and fund new community projects. Unfortunately, unlike Orkney, Shetland has no direct grid connection to the mainland and the island-wide grid has all the renewable energy it needs at present: with no opportunity to earn a feed-in tariff, big developments are on hold.
Everyone hopes this will change in future, but meanwhile NCDC has to find other ways to generate income. Their twin-track approach is to develop assets like the shop and house that will bring in ongoing rental, and to take on any bits and pieces of paid work that come up. For example, Maree writes a weekly column for the Shetland Times and delivers training and development support on behalf of other organisations. NCDC is also helping co-ordinate the building of two new houses for rent in partnership with a local landowner, under the Rural Homes for Rent Pilot. These will be ready for occupation in 2011 and NCDC will receive some payment for the day to day management of the houses. The Community Powerdown Officer is also working closely with HIE on a business plan for a "one stop shop" enterprise for the installation of domestic renewable energy systems.
Mhari Pottinger from HIE has worked with NCDC for several years and keeps in close contact with the group. She recognises that their big challenge is to become self-sustaining. However, she says, "They are delivering so much for the community and the success of the Hillswick shop has given them a real confidence boost. We're keen to help them whatever way we can to continue to develop new assets and businesses. They have so much drive in them that I've every faith they will succeed".
Maree very much appreciates this longstanding support. She says, "HIE always understand what it is we're trying to do and find the best way to help us. The Community Land Unit staff were just brilliant. We've had some fantastic people helping us".
Business information for Northmavine Community Development Company:
Business information for Hillswick Shop:
For further information visit www.northmavine.com or call HIE's Shetland area office on 01595 744940