Co-operatives have a key role to play in building a new local economy – for instance by helping to connect people who have been “left behind” or building community wealth through credit unions – a conference heard.
The issue was debated at the Co-operative Party’s Local Government Conference in Manchester – where the city council has been pioneering a project called Our Manchester, which looks at how local authorities can work with people in a different way, engaging them and encouraging them to work together.
Sue Murphy, deputy leader of Manchester City Council, told the conference that while people felt that politicians and governments were not listening to them, local government was ideally placed to respond to these challenges.
To that end, the council conducted consultations with local residents to find whether they wanted to be involved in activities.
Neil McInroy of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies argued that the economy was leaving too many people behind, and said there was also a lack of important social skills.
“The co-operative movement can bring together the two dimensions,” he said.
He added councillors should measure and map where spending was going, and put in place procurement practices to make sure wealth was spent locally. He also suggested they identify gaps in supply and and try to promote co-ops to fill the need in these areas.
In Preston, the local council is using a similar approach by promoting the concept of community wealth-building. The council works with local colleges, universities and hospitals to encourage them to act as anchors and procure locally.
Cllr Matthew Brown told the conference about the Guild Money Credit Union, launched to address the issues of liquidity and borrowing. The credit unions has now 500 members and is being rolled out across anchor institutions and the local community. Looking ahead, Preston City Council wants to establish a Mondragon style infrastructure involving co-ops, employee-owned businesses, charities and community interest companies.
Matt Bland, policy officer of ABCUL, said credit unions and councils had a long history of working together. Credit unions can help people budget better, and save money and avoid problems such as evictions, he added – but warned local authorities should aim for a sustainable partnership with credit unions rather than expecting the latter to work magic.
Mr Bland said councils could support credit unions by providing funding or depositing funds with them.
“By making a small capital investment, which is what Preston City Council did, or making a small loan to a credit union, you can accelerate growth with a relatively small amount of money,” he explained.
He also called on local authorities to encourage credit unions to work with employers in their area to build a market through which they can reach the local community.
Cllr Jim King from Salford urged every single councillor to try to get a motion on fair tax onto local council agendas.
“Go back to councils and put this motion through,” he said. “Labour/Co-op councillors should lead on these ethical issues.”
In addition, Mr King proposed asking the new metro mayors to set up an office for co-operatives and mutuals when they get into office.
Local government brings real opportunities for co-operatives, said Claire McCarthy, secretary general of the Co-operative Party. “Co-operative councillors and councils must be at the forefront of innovation and fairness in local government,” she said.