Edinburgh hosts historic cross-party meeting on co-operatives

Co-operators and elected representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland met for the first time at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh to discuss how to take forward the...

Co-operators and elected representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland met for the first time at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh to discuss how to take forward the co-operative agenda in their regions.

The private meeting featured members of the cross-party groups in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Willie Coffey MSP (SNP), who organised the meeting, said: “This is the first time we had members interested in the co-op movement from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales come together. It’s fascinating to hear some of the different approaches taken and it’s important that we share that.”

It’s important to challenge thinking about business, he added.

“We don’t automatically think of setting up social enterprises and co-ops,” he  said. “We have a challenge to explain possibilities to people.

“We could help achieve that through the government. Agencies involved in co-operation have a really strong role here as well. There is an opportunity to grow businesses using the co-op model.”

Sammy Douglas, member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said: “It’s good to have links with all parliaments in the UK. Sometimes we feel isolated.”

He added that the Assembly’s All Party Group on Co-operatives had helped raise awareness about the co-operative model among parliamentarians in Northern Ireland.

Labour/Co-op Welsh Assembly member Mick Antoniw said: “What you’re taking from this meeting is seeing what’s being done to develop co-ops and different types of collective ownership, whether it would be businesses or services in different parts of the UK, what Scotland is doing, what Northern Ireland is doing, and exchanging ideas.

“I’ve learnt a lot of interesting things about what’s been happening with housing, some public services and with businesses. That sharing of ideas is vital, it’s the whole purpose of coming here and meeting.”

Mr Antoniw is chair of the Welsh Assembly’s Co-operatives and Mutuals committee, with members from all four parties who share a lot of common ground on co-ops. The committee formed at the beginning of the Assembly, when representatives were exploring different alternatives to private ownership of rail, including the co-operative option.

“It’s a way of exploring ideas,” said Mr Antoniw, “and understanding what’s happening within your own backyard in terms of co-op development and seeing how we can actually translate that into greater support from government bodies into promotion and development of co-ops.”

In 2012 the Welsh government set up a commission to find evidence and make recommendations about growing the co-operative and mutual economy.

“The cross-party group has certainly raised awareness,” added Mr Antoniw. “It has certainly contributed to pressure on the Welsh government to have the commission to explore the issue of co-op development, which has produced some very serious recommendations.

“I’m sure there will be a new cross-party group after the next set of elections that will want to see the recommendations from the commission put into practice in government policy.

“It would have also influenced all of the political parties’ manifestos, making them think about the issue of co-ops and what ideas they have themselves to promote co-operatives.”

The private meeting was followed by a public event at the Edinburgh City Council where co-operators from all three regions talked about co-operative development initiatives.

Public meeting between co-operators and representatives at Edinburgh City Council
Public meeting between co-operators and representatives at Edinburgh City Council


The commission’s report is structured around a number of areas, including education and procurement.

“We are now seeing some good progress,” Derek Walker of the Wales Co-operative Centre, which delivers co-operative development programmes on behalf of the Welsh government and the EU, told the public meeting. “We’ve developed material so that teachers and lecturers within schools can use material based on co-op businesses to teach for the Welsh baccalaureate”.

The commission has also suggested offering specialised business masters courses on co-operatives and mutuals, or including co-operative issues in mainstream courses.

“This is happening sporadically but not to the extent we would like to see,” said Mr Walker.

Another recommendation was to encourage co-operative procurement. Wales’s Labour administration has already increased public procurement for Welsh businesses from 37% to 50%.

“The commission was looking at setting up particular co-ops to provide services needed in a certain area,” said Mr Walker. This could also help the government’s “better jobs” campaign by creating co-ops that employ people in areas with high unemployment rates.

“The task is to make sure the next Welsh government doesn’t start again but adopts this as a key report that it wants to see fulfilled. Our job is to keep the momentum for those recommendations,” he added.

cch_logo_welshWith support from the Welsh government, the centre has worked with the Confederation of Co-operative Housing to develop a guide for people wishing to set up housing co-operatives. The bottom-up project has seen three pilot schemes in Newport, Cardiff and Carmarthenshire deliver 58 new co-operative houses.

James Proctor of Co-operatives UK, who chaired the public meeting, said Co-operative Development Scotland (CDS) was working with Edinburgh and Glasgow city councils to promote the co-op model to people setting up businesses.

Set up in 2009 as an arm of Scottish Enterprise, a government body, CDS focuses on how co-operatives and employee ownership models can contribute to economic growth. As part of its work, CDS looks to identify co-operative models, such as ownership succession, that can contribute to the economy.

As well as working to encourage employee ownership, CDS is also pushing for small businesses to collaborate and come together under co-operative models as business consortia. CDS provides support and training and pays some of the legal costs.

“Co-ops and employee ownership are reaching a stage in Scotland where they are becoming much more noticed,” said Jim Maxwell of CDS.

Talking about what he had taken away from the private meeting, Mr Coffey said: “One of messages from Wales was to try to influence education curricula to make sure youngsters in schools are fully aware of possibility of co-op models. Going forward I would like to see materials being available to Scottish schools that introduce to every youngsters the idea of co-operation.”

Mick Antoniw thinks the Scottish experience in promoting employee ownership through CDS could be useful for Wales. He points to the way Scottish parliament is looking at co-ops, from funding issues to inclusion of co-ops and mutuals in business development.

“I am very interested in some of the ideas on ownership succession for example,” he said, “so that when people want to step out of business there might be opportunities to turn those into co-ops to allow employees to buy in […] I’m very interested in taking that back to Wales.” 

Unlike Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland has no government funded co-operative development agency.

“One of the difficulties is that there are quite a number of social enterprise schemes who receive funding but at the moment there is no financial support for development of co-ops and that’s something we are researching now,” said Sammy Douglas.

But some sectors are beginning to witness an increased interest in the co-operative model. One of these is brewing. Mr Douglas is a member of Boundary Brewing, the first craft beer co-operative in Belfast. The founding members have raised £250,000 through a share offer, exceeding their initial target of £70,000.

Bottling at Boundary Brewery. [photo: Boundary Brewery]
Bottling at Boundary Brewery. [photo: Boundary Brewery]
Representing Northern Ireland and the Ulster Community Investment Trust, Erskine Holmes also pointed out that co-operatives could benefit from legislative changes to allow corporates such as Ulster to be members of credit unions. Ulster can currently lend to credit unions but they cannot place money with them.

Allowing corporates to become members would enable credit unions to lend more, acting as a source of loans for their local social enterprises and co-operatives.

Participants in the discussion highlighted how in Scotland Airdrie Savings Bank has partnered with Community Re:Investment Trust (SCRT) to support the third sector. The bank provides a savings account that enables customers to donate some or all of their interest rate to SCRT, helping to grow social enterprises. This could be a model that credit unions could follow, they said.

Erskine Holmes added that the co-operative model should be explored more in sectors such as housing, agriculture and public services.

Co-operative development consultant Alex Bird said politicians could promote asset locks for co-operatives. Community benefit societies have asset locks, which makes them more appealing when it comes to investing public money, he said.

Asked how getting representatives from different regions to work together could help promote the co-operative agenda, Mr Coffey said: “We’re all facing elections and I think everyone that has been here today is committed to taking forward the agenda into the new parliament.

“I really look forward to be able to participate in that. I think if we are going to be successful we have to influence our respective governments to take an extra step to engage with the co-op process so we can take that forward and grow the co-operative model for the future.”

In this article

Join the Conversation