Marking the transition of a small rural business

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Taken on my last visit to the workshop yesterday — I wonder when they will take the sign down.

My Stepdad set up his small agricultural engineering business 45 years ago. During the years of designing, building, fixing and maintaining metal work and farm machinery, he has also built a narrow boat, several dozen wood-burning stoves (that are now peppered around the country in various homes of friends and family) and designed (and built after lots of prototyping) 4 of his own branded machine products. He’s a talented craftsman who has tirelessly worked with his hands and run a business.

Last night I organised a surprise party, to mark the occasion of him “selling” it on. When I say selling it, we’re not talking big trade deals, more the selling on of his workshop machinery, the lease for the workshop, a client-base built up over the years and an agreement of continued employment for the few men who worked for him, by the man taking things over.

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When you’ve spent 45 years as a self-employed businessman, who celebrates you when you’re ready to slow down? How do you know when to stop?

It felt really important on a personal level to acknowledge Andy and what he has achieved, but it also felt important beyond that. I’ve learnt a lot from his experiences, about what we undervalue in society — some of what I *think* about in my work, about what is happening to our social infrastructure, are things that have lived out in reality for him.

It’s been an ongoing challenge for my Stepdad to find skilled people to hire. He’s tried to work cooperatively with the government through their apprenticeship schemes and with the local council, but the reality is fewer and fewer people have the skills for the kind of work his business does. Maybe it will end up all being automated anyway — there are many things that robots can now do in agriculture — but my Stepdad has borne the brunt of this skills disappearance for years, as I’m sure many rural and manual businesses have done, with little support.

“England is a largely urbanised country and for many people the countryside is somewhere to visit or holiday. This can result in policy makers and deliverers overlooking the needs of rural communities and rural-based businesses, designing policies that don’t suit rural areas with their dispersed settlement pattern.”

http://www.acre.org.uk/our-work/rural-coalition

Not only is there a bias towards investing in digital skills, there is also a huge bias towards Cities and the distribution of those digital skills. As I’ve seen things change around my Stepdad’s business — the lower wages, the consistent demand for the work he does but not enough supply of skills to help him meet that demand— I’m sure there are many ways his business could have been more efficient and easier for him. There seemed to be no rural business incubators or accelerators (not only in geography but in terms of context too) and not a maker space in sight. I did join him as a member to Makespace Cambridge a few years back but I didn’t make the time to take him there, to help build his confidence, or to help him see the connections in the way he needed me to if he were to make use of it alone. I’m still certain there are so many aspects of his business that could have benefitted from linking up his making and construction knowledge with new digital machines.

The Rural Coalition published a new strategy in 2017 identifying the need for policies to improve “business support and infrastructure which reaches rural areas, so the rural economy can grow and create quality jobs.”

It wasn’t lost on me too, that we held the celebrations in the local village pub, another part of our shrinking social infrastructure, which last year nearly closed, and now survives only because the villagers have been able to self-fund it through a co-operative model.

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The celebrations in full swing.

“In the public imagination and in international reputation, rural Britain is a place of near meadows, still streams and sleepy villages, but the challenges facing it and its police forces are significant and unique.” https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2018-06-06/debates/43EC469A-5CE2-4DA5-A39B-A4F49AD3E71E/RuralCrimeAndPublicServices

Alongside feeling unsupported as a small rural business in terms of skills and development, the most visceral sense of being insignificant came from how the police responded to my Stepdad as a victim of crime. It can feel like things are fading, being left behind, shutting down and dying all around rural areas, and no more so than in the increasing lack of police services.

“Seventeen per cent of England’s population live in rural areas, supporting some 520,000 businesses, employing nearly 3.7m people and generating £404bn every year for the national economy. Yet the Rural Coalition warns that many rural dwellers feel ‘left behind’ or ignored, with key services cut back because of public sector austerity”

http://www.acre.org.uk/our-work/rural-coalition

The workshop that my Stepdad rented for his business has been broken in to so many times and he’s had all kinds of things stolen. He got alarms fitted and all kinds of other security devices, all linked up to the police station too, but even with a direct alarm the police could still take hours to show up, and sometimes not at all. I remember many times when he had to jump up in the middle of the night and head out alone when the alarm was going off because the police clearly weren’t going to. And during these times there were several when he was definitely in danger. One of those times a few of the thieves were hiding under trucks in the yard with crow bars and all sorts — luckily on that occasion the police showed up just in time. In the last few years the police have all but given up, so they sometimes don’t arrive at all. Apparently they are unable to tackle the organised crime gangs that are coming over from Eastern Europe to loot from farms and rural businesses.

The cumulative affect of all those experiences frayed his nerves and racked up his anxiety (not to mention costs which for a tiny business had a real impact), but most of all it left him feeling like nobody was looking out for him, he couldn’t rely on the police for safety or justice, there really was nobody to turn to. The police didn’t care, or at least didn’t have the resources to pay any attention to him.

“Rural communities are living on the edge — in fear of crime, unhappy with the police and feeling isolated and vulnerable.” http://www.nationalruralcrimenetwork.net/research/internal/2018survey/

Lastly, and it links to the lack of investment in small rural business, a man who has spent 45 years building a practice, developing a craft and playing an important role in a local agricultural community, has gone from the workplace. It’s different when someone leaves a large organisation and there is the infrastructure to support the transfer of knowledge and experience as new people move in and others leave. In a tiny rural business that never had any external support, what happens to the equivalent of “organisational memory”? This will be happening all over the country — a loss of wisdom — nobody playing a role in scooping up the knowledge of small local businesses. Nobody taking a responsibility for what we need to learn and share before it’s all gone.

Whilst his workshop still stands in the rural wilds of Cambridgeshire, invisible, insignificant and unattended to for years now by the police and central government, I’m glad last night we could show Andy that he has been seen, his resilience is really admired and he has sewn things in to the local community that will stay forever.

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Andy on the left with his 3 brothers — a metal worker, a stone mason, a scientist and a musician / photographer (Rado was in the original Pink Floyd!)

Written by

Senior Head, UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.

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