I see, with delight, the news that the National Lottery has awarded a tidy little sum to Thorncombe Village Shop to fund improvements that will make the shop an even more attractive location for the locals to gather at than it is already.
I should admit that I am hopelessly biased in favour of this particular shop, as it is in my own village, and I have been involved with it since the idea of creating a community shop in the village was first mooted. But, even laying my bias aside, I think I can claim with reasonable objectivity that this community shop is one of the most beautiful and one of the best village shops anywhere around.
Of course, there are many splendid village shops in West Dorset – some of which are run brilliantly as commercial enterprises. But, quite apart from the fact that our particular village is on the small side when it comes to providing sufficient demand to sustain a purely commercial enterprise, there is also a particular gain for the “social-capital” of the village that arises from engagement in a community shop – as any of us who have supported the shop and who lend a hand there from time to time will testify.
I understand that this is precisely the argument which won the day when it came to the National Lottery application. Those responsible for distributing funds from the lottery recognised, rightly, that further investment in community enterprises of this kind is an extremely cost-effective and sensible way of helping to counter rural isolation. The shop has become a meeting place for the village as a whole, and the people who gather in it inevitably end up talking to one another, while those who participate in helping to run it, inevitably form social bonds.
These are the little acorns out of which the great oak of social cohesion can grow.
Of course, community shops in particular and village shops in general are not the only things that can provide a hub and create social capital in a remote village. A similar and equally important role is played by village halls, pubs, churches, village schools, first responders, neighbourhood plans, parish councils and a welter of clubs and societies. All of these have the potential to bring the inhabitants of villages together in common enterprises.
Those in national and county government who are rightly concerned to counter rural isolation would be well advised always to begin by trying to reinforce these sorts of community enterprises rather than by establishing new offices and agencies which are far less likely to work with the grain of human nature.
Perhaps, indeed, there is a larger point here about the way in which governments should in general go about trying to solve real social problems.
Where there is an issue like rural isolation (or many other such problems), I don’t think the government can just sit by and hope that they will be resolved without intervention. But, by the same token governments shouldn’t imagine that they can typically solve intricate social problems through establishing new bureaucracies. Problems of social interaction are human in scale and require solutions that are also human in scale.