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Residents fighting tide of closures

PUBLISHED: 05:11 20 January 2003 | UPDATED: 16:12 24 February 2010

RESIDENTS are fighting to open their own shop and sub post office in a community about to become the latest victim of failing rural services.

For more than a century a post office and stores has operated from the main street in Monks Eleigh, but post master Bill Cooper is poised to give up his 14-year fight to keep the business profitable.

RESIDENTS are fighting to open their own shop and sub post office in a community about to become the latest victim of failing rural services.

For more than a century a post office and stores has operated from the main street in Monks Eleigh, but post master Bill Cooper is poised to give up his 14-year fight to keep the business profitable.

He blames the demise of his concern on changing life styles and newcomers settling into the area who do not support local facilities.

Mr Cooper is seeking to sell off his home and shop for residential use because he has failed to find a commercial buyer after having the venture on the market for 18 months.

He says new Government backed arrangements for direct payments of benefits, including pensions, is another nail in the coffin, and has caused the bottom to fall out of the market for sub post office premises.

However, he has taken active steps to encourage the village to keep services going through a community shop proposal, and this weekend residents are being asked through a door-to-door questionnaire to commit themselves to the idea.

Following two public meetings, a steering group has been formed to launch the project in a brick barn in the yard of Monks Eleigh's only remaining pub, the Swan. The idea is expected to get financial backing from the Government funded Countryside Agency, which can contribute up to £25,000 for such an initiative.

In recent times the village has lost one of its last two pubs, and the demise of the local garage is imminent, with the owners having been given permission to redevelop the site with housing. They had been unable to find a buyer for the business, and have already closed the fuel section of the operation, which was hit by many residents choosing to buy supplies at supermarkets in nearby towns.

The post office and stores is due to close on March 26, and Mr Cooper has applied for planning permission to convert the commercial area adjoining his house to residential use.

He said: "I put the whole site on the market for £335,000 more than 18 months ago and have since dropped it by £30,000. The bottom has dropped out of the market for village post offices. While property values have been rising fast everywhere in East Anglia, mine has been going down. We are trading at a loss, and the income my wife brings in by going out to work is subsidising the business.

"About 10 years ago I put of lot of investment into expanding the facilities, but all it did was hold trade level, while overheads have continued to rise.

"Local people have stayed very loyal. But newcomers arrive and immediately come to us to find out information about this and that, and then we don't see them again. They get in their four-by-four vehicles and drive to the nearest Sainsburys or Tesco in local towns, just as they did when they used to live in London.

"Young, professional people are buying many of the homes and couples go off to work each day, calling at supermarkets on their way home."

However, Mr Cooper wants to stay in Monks Eleigh when he has sold up, and believes the village has sufficient spirit to open its own non-profit making community shop.

"I have kept the parish council informed and put them in touch with bodies, including the Post Office, to try and ensure a seamless service continues. I may try to hang on a few weeks in the hope the community shop can take over," he added.

Mandy Coll, who has worked in the shop for 20 years, has applied to become the new sub post officer in the community venture, the main part of which will be managed and run by volunteers.

Liz Anderson, regional worker for educational charity Village Retail Services Association, is advising the steering committee. She is also a retail adviser to the Countryside Agency, which has grant aided similar community initiatives in Suffolk and Essex, the most recent at Toppesfield.

She said judging by the amount of volunteer expertise and enthusiasm available in Monks Eleigh, she believed it had the potential to succeed in its ambition.

Nigel and Carol Rumsbottom, who took over the Swan Inn four years ago after working with Robert Mabey at his Regatta restaurant in Southwold, said they were prepared to let the barn outbuilding earmarked for the shop at a nominal rent. They wanted the venture to succeed because they were already one of the biggest users of the existing shop.

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