General election announcement ‘an opportunity’ for co-ops

Co-operatives UK, the Wales Co-operative Centre and the Co-operative Party believe the prime minister's proposal for a snap general election could be an opportunity for the sector

Theresa May’s proposal for a snap general election on 8 June is “an opportunity for the co-operative and mutual sector”, according to Co-operatives UK’s Ed Mayo. The secretary general for the sector body believes that “more than any recent one, this election will define the shape of the economy to come”.

The next UK general election was scheduled for May 2020; however in line with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 it may be held at an earlier date in the event of a motion of no confidence or a two-thirds supermajority of the House of Commons. Ms May, who has served as UK Prime Minister since 2016, will move the motion in the Commons on 19 April.

Co-operatives UK wants to “make the most of this as an opportunity”, said Mr Mayo, adding that over the coming days the organisation will be drafting “key communications to promote and unite co-ops, along with our allies and partners in the social economy” and will be publishing headline policy asks for whoever governs after 8 June.

“We are well placed,” he said. “Last week we wrote to key ministers across government setting out what needs to be safeguarded for co-ops in the Brexit process. Because of our lobbying, including our campaign success to lift audit requirements for smaller co-ops in the Budget last month, officials in key parts of Whitehall currently have more of an informed understanding of our key policy needs.”

Housing

In terms of housing, Nic Bliss, head of policy at the Confederation of Co-operative Housing said: “The UK needs between 200,000 and 300,000 homes built every year and we haven’t hit that number since the 1970s.”

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CCH head of policy Nic Bliss

He believes the problems are with “complacent national and local governments of all shades and a dysfunctional and complacent housing industry”.

“What is needed is for ordinary people and communities to have much more control over the housing in their neighbourhoods,” he said. “There has been some recognition of this in the UK and Welsh governments – and it is starting to deliver some good co-operative housing schemes – but there is a long way to go before co-operative housing options become part of the mainstream available to all.”

Energy

Community Energy England (CEE), which was set up in 2014 to provide a voice for the community energy sector – including co-operatives – will be campaigning for the sector.

“We would hope that all political parties would put energy issues at the core of their manifesto and look to provide longer term policy support for the engagement of communities in addressing energy issues,” said chief executive Emma Bridge.

Some of the organisation’s specific asks would be: the introduction of a community Feed-in Tariff; the restoration of tax relief for high risk low carbon community energy, such as heat, hydro and wind; and a review of planning guidance so that community renewable energy projects are given recognition by the planning system and that communities where such projects are supported have a realistic prospect of seeing them advance.

CEE would also like to see increased liaising with the community energy sector to build demand-side management projects (matching usage to generation) in every major town and city in the UK.

Post-Brexit assurances for Wales

In Wales, the Wales Co-operative Centre (WCC) “will be reminding politicians of all parties of the crucial role of social businesses in stimulating local economies”.

“The general election will be an opportunity to make the case for a more inclusive economy,” said Derek Walker, chief executive of the WCC. “Focus should be placed on creating the conditions where strong, local, community-centric economies can flourish. We believe that the social enterprise and co-operative sector can be at the centre of these economies.”

Brexit – which is likely to be a big part of the election debate – is also a crucial issue for social businesses in Wales.

“Businesses, communities and individuals across Wales have benefited significantly from European Union funding,” said Mr Walker. “Social enterprises and co-operatives have been helped to grow and create new jobs as a result of business advice, grants and loans funded by the EU. We want assurances that the kind of actions that European funds have supported over the years will be funded by the next UK government.”

Electing co-operators to Parliament

Like Co-operatives UK, the Co-operative Party sees the general election as a chance to work hard on particular objectives; in this case “to elect co-operators to Parliament and to make the case for a more co-operative Britain”.

“Since the last general election, Co-operative MPs have been busy defending and advancing the co-operative model, in Parliament and in their communities,” said Gareth Thomas MP, chair of the Co-operative Party.

“As a nation we face an uncertain future, so it is more important than ever that the co-operative movement has a strong voice in the rooms where decisions are made.”

Mr Thomas added that the Party recognises its co-operative values have “real potential” to help meet some of the challenges facing Britain. “The Co-operative Party will take the opportunity this election affords to make the case for an economy and society where power and wealth are more equally shared, and where the co-operative sector is able to fulfil its full potential,” he said.

A workers’ economy

Deb Oxley, chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association, called for more recognition for the worker-owned model.

“The announcement around the upcoming general election signals not only the start of a period of yet more uncertainty, but also represents an important opportunity,” she said, adding that “the UK leads Europe in the growth of employee share ownership”.

She wants parties to capitalise on this “unique position” to build a stronger UK economy through the country’s Brexit strategy.

“Ours is a sector that continues to grow in strength year in year. It’s time to recognise the positive impact employee ownership has on the UK economy, and how widespread awareness and support of the sector can continue to reap benefits for Britain’s economic growth.

“With all this in mind, the EOA is calling for a greater focus on the role our sector can play in building and sustaining a more productive, resilient and innovative economy for all.”

She says the EOA wants employee ownership made a central part of the national Industrial Strategy, with recognition for its economic value and strong performance, and the advantages of longer-term business strategies over “the quarterly economy” as a driver of economic infrastructure.

The Industrial Strategy should also “make banks, other financial institutions and the accountancy sector more aware of the strength and performance of this sector”, she adds.

The EOA wants a commitment to “capacity building that will allow the sector to use its national reach, its regional networks and its local contacts to drive more demand within the sector, build professional capacity, and to offer critical advice and mentoring to many more fledgling and would-be employee owned businesses”.

“Employee-owned businesses are characterised by many features,” added Ms Oxley, “which UK businesses of all types will need more than ever as they face continued uncertainty in the economy; greater certainty and stability, the total support of their shareholders, and for all of their stakeholders to have the same shared purpose.”

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