Hometown schooling: the town based on Robert Owen’s co-op principles

A Scottish charity which hoped to build a new town based on the principles of one of the founders of the co-operative movement is now planning to deliver...

A Scottish charity which hoped to build a new town based on the principles of one of the founders of the co-operative movement is now planning to deliver a network of schools, bringing power to local communities.

The Hometown Foundation invested years of expertise into its vision for Owenstown, a £500m project only a few miles from Robert Owen’s world-famous New Lanark mills, now a World Heritage Site. The ambitious project promised a co-operative settlement wholly owned and controlled by its residents via the Owenstown Co-operative Society.

Plans for its 400-acre site included 3,200 homes, two primary schools, a secondary school, commercial space, shops and leisure facilities with the additional promise of thousands of jobs in an area of high unemployment. In 2014, those hopes were dashed when planning permission was refused by the local authority.

Project director for the Owenstown initiative was Bill Nicol, who continues to work for the Foundation from its New Lanark base and is also a New Lanark trustee.

Owenstown allowed us to look at what schools would look like in a co-operative situation and that is what got us thinking more about education

Born and brought up in South Lanarkshire, Mr Nicol has spent his career working for local authorities and public/private joint venture partnerships on creative community projects. Before starting work with the Hometown Foundation, he was chief executive of a pathfinder urban regeneration company.

He said: “The whole ethos behind Owenstown was to give individuals and community greater control of their lives via affordable housing and education and allow communities to prosper through their own efforts.”

Mr Nicol admits it was a devastating moment when the Owenstown project was turned down by the local authority in South Lanarkshire because it did not fit in with their Local Plan.

“Our trustees had spent a lot of time and effort developing the concept and after seven years developing it was a major blow. We would like to think at some point we would get planning consent but in the foreseeable future that is unlikely to happen. We took the idea to the Scottish government and had a lot of support, but they would not go against the local authority.”

Bill Nicol
Bill Nicol

He still hopes key aspects of the Owenstown vision can be re-created elsewhere and is actively involved in talks with the co-operative movement and other local authorities.

“We are hoping to take elements of what we wanted to achieve in Owenstown and build them elsewhere. We have spoken to people such as Cambridge Borough Council, Co-operatives and Mutuals Wales and government representatives in north and south Wales, as well as Social Enterprise Ireland. People are really enthusiastic about the concept so it is frustrating we cannot get planning consent on our own doorstep.”

For now the Hometown Foundation is focusing on its new plans to set up state-funded autonomous schools.

“Owenstown allowed us to look at what schools would look like in a co-operative situation and that is what got us thinking more about education,” Mr Nicol adds.

Its plans for a new educational model have been drafted in response to recent reports, which suggest Scotland is falling behind other countries, including England, in educational outcomes.

Unlike many of the free schools championed in England, the schools would be run on co-op principles.

“The idea is similar to free schools but is our own co-operative model. Currently money goes direct from government to local authorities and a lot of people are only engaged in education on second-hand basis,” says Mr Nicol.

“What we are promoting is state- funded autonomous schools and we are working with parent groups and various communities. What I have been doing is working with the Co-operative College so the schools would be similar to co-op schools in terms of structure.

“They would be managed by a board and parents would have a greater say. Educationalists would run it but there would be heavier involvement by parents and pupils working closer together.

“What we would be intending to do is take the better aspects of free schools and apply them to Scotland. The main thing for us is about ownership, getting parents and children more heavily involved. The co-operative arrangement is where it is different. Co-op schools have expanded big-style and this is not private sector. The schools would be wholly owned by parents and funded by the government.”

The Hometown Foundation is still looking at various projects around affordable housing, including homes for ex-Army veterans.

Robert Owen
Robert Owen

“The idea there is working with another group to build affordable housing and get them involved in construction of their own property. We are still looking at different models but there are a lot of Ministry of Defence properties which are surplus to requirements and we are trying to identify with government agencies to see if they could be released and owned and managed by residents in a co-operative way.

“We still view Owenstown as a valuable concept and, where possible, we would like to build those principles into other initiatives. It might not be as ambitious, but there are still aspects worth progressing.”

The Foundation is working with seven parent groups, which are faith and non faith-based, and have so far submitted three business plans to the Scottish government. The list includes a Catholic primary school in Milngavie and a Muslim school in Glasgow. Mr Nicol is hopeful of a decision in the near future.

“We are encouraged that the Scottish government has an open mind and has engaged in advanced discussions,” he says. “We are keen that as many parents and teachers as possible get in contact so that we can explain the full range of benefits that flow from our model, irrespective of locations religion or ethnicity.

The Foundation will assist any group which shares its core belief that every child deserves the best possible start in life.”

Though currently focusing on education, the Hometown Foundation hopes to extend its vision to other areas in the near future and build on the Owenstown concept by working with co-operative organisations and interested groups.

“We would like to get back to looking at sustainable communities. Our ambitions go beyond education but we need to push on with that just now,” says Mr Nicol.

“I am a great supporter of the co-operative ethos and it is all about ownership and putting it firmly in the hands of people. Parents like a childminding facility but if they were more engaged standards would start to look after themselves. If people take greater ownership of their children’s education, everything else falls into place.”


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