Co-ops and credit unions respond to Scotland’s programme for government

Co-operatives UK said an increase in worker-owned firms would be a boost to the Inclusive Growth and Fair Work agendas

Co-operatives and credit unions have responded to the agenda set out by the Scottish government.

In her programme for government, first minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged to “investigate the scope” to expand existing support for employee ownership, including social care co-operatives’ role in the delivery of services – a move welcomed by Co-operatives UK.

In its analysis of the Programme of Government, Co-operatives UK looks at how co-ops can contribute to an inclusive economy in Scotland, particularly in relation to decent work, community empowerment, social care and the transition to a more sustainable way of life.

“We are convinced that increasing the number of worker-owned and controlled firms in Scotland will contribute significantly to the government’s Inclusive Growth and Fair Work agendas,” said James Wright, policy officer at Co-operatives UK.

“However, we’re also convinced that any expansion in scope must include enhanced grass roots support for the development of new worker co-ops. This needs to happen at a community level, with current localised start-up support augmented by a co-op specific offering for those who want it, drawn in on a more systematic basis.”

The apex body thinks employee ownership fits in with the government’s plans for “Community Wealth Building”, which would help communities generate and keep more wealth locally.

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“The grass-roots development of firms owned and controlled by local workers must surely form part of this initiative – if nothing else worker ownership should be a tool in the box,” adds Co-operatives UK in its response.

On 24 October the Scottish Parliament hosts a meeting of the Cross Party Group on Co-operatives, which will look at the contribution worker ownership can make to the government’s Inclusive Growth and Fair Work agendas and the possible policy options for enhancing it.

Related: John McDonnell envisions an ‘economy for the many’ with co-ops at the forefront

Co-operatives UK also argues that co-operative approaches should be important for the government’s Community Empowerment agenda because they enable people to get more control of assets and local services, as well as for wealth and commerce.

“We’d be interested to explore whether things like the Empowering Communities Fund – intended to support hundreds of community organisations to deliver locally identified priorities to tackle poverty and inequality – can be used to develop co-op solutions that give local people ownership and control of their livelihoods, as well as building their own systems of solidarity, self-help and mutual aid,” reads Mr Wright’s statement.

Co-operatives UK also welcomed plans for a Scottish Investment Bank, which, it hopes, will provide some scope to support wealth building and co-operative growth.

According to Co-operatives UK, a “genuinely collaborative economy” would require people’s access to digital technology, opportunities to develop new skills – in relation to digital technologies and more broadly – information about the possibilities of collaboration, and key collaborative organisational tools, including co-ops.

The government’s programme also pledges to support the development of social care co-operatives, recognising the co-op model in relation to care.

“The government puts this in the context of worker ownership,” said Mr Wright, “and while this is very appropriate – the gains for both service users and care workers from this ownership model can be significant – we’re keen for it to explore and champion other co-operative approaches to care as well.

“For instance, co-operatives of micro providers can significantly enhance the care on offer and multi-stakeholder co-ops offer a strong solution for empowering service users and communities in the care system. Our recent research highlights the challenges and opportunities to developing user and community-owned care.”

In terms of the transition to a low-carbon economy, the Scottish government recognises the role of communities in making this happen. Mr Wright said co-operative approaches offer a “practical solution” to make recycling schemes work for both small retailers and their customers, enabling them to create a system for transacting with big suppliers.

Platform co-ops could also facilitate the promotion of shared consumption solutions to reduce environmental impact, he added.

The government’s programme does not make any mentions of co-operative approaches to self‑build and custom‑build homes in its stated plans to support these forms of development.

James Wright said Co-operatives UK welcomed the plans but wants to see more measures in place for co-ops

“We’d also like to have seen mention of other community-led solutions to housing, and the growing potential of community land trusts in particular,” said Mr Wright.

With the government also announcing plans for a state owned energy company and a public bidder for the next ScotRail franchise, Co-operatives UK sets forward the idea that these should have mutual features.

The programme includes references to Scotland’s new Land Commission, which the government will ask to review existing mechanisms and recommend how best to enable community ownership.

In terms of financial inclusion, the government commits to continue to support credit unions for people to have access to affordable and ethical alternative to high-street banking and payday loans. The government expects its Junior Savers Scheme to include 40 new partnerships with schools across Scotland, helping to improve financial literacy among young people. The programme also suggests the government will work to deliver a national credit union awareness raising campaign, working with sector representatives to identify opportunities for targeted local activity on funeral poverty.

Karen Hurst, policy officer for Scotland at ABCUL, said: “Scotland leads the way in Great Britain for levels of credit union membership with Glasgow having the largest credit union membership of any British city where one in four belong to a credit union.

“The Scottish government has been a great supporter of credit unions for many years and we are delighted that it continues to support the role of credit unions to provide access to affordable and ethical financial services in its new programme for government.

“Credit unions are active in many schools already and the government’s funding is helping to deepen and expand the movement’s role in financial education.  We are excited to also be working with Scottish government on raising awareness of credit unions as well as exploring how credit unions can help people avoid the death of a loved one pushing them further into debt.”

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