It is something of a paradox that at a time when the co-operative movement is in pole position to transform our economy, the number of co-op development agencies and bodies offering support to new start-ups has significantly fallen. But all that could change, thanks to an online initiative to consolidate knowledge and expertise using the latest technology.
Platform 6 Co-operative is headed by Dr Mark Simmonds, who for the past six years has been helping people start and grow co-ops via Co-op Culture, a consortium of members and associates with wide experience of supporting co-operatives. It conducts research, and offers advice on everything from feasibility studies and finance to drafting community share offers, grant and loan finance, governance and structures, and delivering training and workshops. So far it has helped clients in fields including agriculture, energy. housing and food co-ops.
Dr Simmonds has a long association with Co-operatives UK and currently occupies the co-operative development seat on its board. He agrees that recent years have not been easy for traditional co-operative development agencies (CDAs) and co-op development bodies (CDBs) – but says their decline started much earlier.
“The main problem is the lack of funding streams which are available for development,” he says. “CDAs were doing well until Margaret Thatcher pulled the funding plug from central government in the 1980s and over the years most of them have fallen by the wayside – although there are about half a dozen left in places like Coventry, Warwickshire and Lincolnshire.
“The CDB Forum, hosted by Co-operatives UK, is still up and running and there are still about 25 CDBs but they have really struggled for a variety of reasons including overheads and the fact there is now more paid work with social enterprise rather than co-operatives.”
He adds: “At Co-op Culture we realised we had a lot of expertise within co-ops we had supported over the years – and lots of them were already doing development worwk. But it wasn’t paid and it was under the radar. The only thing there purely for co-ops is the Hive, funded by the Co-operative Bank and run by Co-operatives UK. However this is limited and very competitive.
“Power To Change has lots of Lottery money in trust but it is tied to community businesses and many co-ops are not eligible. We knew we could get lots of work supporting community stuff but not worker co-ops who are the people we want to work with. There is huge demand out there but it is under-resourced.
“We thought could we create a fund for the whole co-op movement which would allow people to put money in. That’s where the idea for Platform 6 came up.”
Platform 6 aims to grow the co-operative economy through the peer-to-peer provision of high-quality expertise, services and funding using a co-operatively owned and controlled digital platform.
It was incorporated as a co-operative just a month ago and its founder members are planning a comprehensive network of co-operative expertise and shared resources. They hope this will generate funds for co-operative development and broker relationships to deliver formal co-operative business support to new and existing co-operatives.
If all goes to plan, the network will be developed by the members through Loomio, an app which allows online discussion and structured decision-making by members supporting each other through peer-to-peer advice. The idea is that the platform will fund payment for co-operative development consultancy work as well as events training, workshops and pretty much anything else members want to fund.
“Platform 6 was incorporated as a co-operative about a month ago,” says Dr Simmonds, “and there are now 50 people in our working group which will explore the platform and how it operates. We are opening up membership so anyone can become a member who subscribes a minimum amount of £1 a week.
Related: The Co-op Economy Report 2018
“The other thing we want to do is improve knowledge of resources, which is currently quite poor. We are creating an online resource of all UK co-operative development resources. It will be a bit like Wikipedia, anyone can go on and edit it and the co-op movement will have a shared resource. We are asking people to sign up, join our e-mail list and support us financially.”
The development of Platform 6 follows a report released in January by Co-op Culture which identified lack of finance and start-up support as the the key issues affecting the ability of worker co-operatives to get off the ground. They supported the idea of Barefoot Co-operative Development Practitioners, working with Co-operatives UK to develop training courses to help new and developing co-ops. It is also hoped that retail co-operative societies will opt to put more money into co-operative development as Platform 6 evolves.
The initiative arrives on the heels of Co-operatives Unleashed – an independent report from the New Economics Foundation into how Labour could deliver its 2017 manifesto commitment to double the size of the co-op economy and build an alternative to austerity and neo-liberalism.
It calls for a radical new framework with many exciting proposals including a Co-operative Economy Act, a co-op development agency for England and Northern Ireland, and a “John Lewis law” compelling larger private companies to transfer a proportion of profits into a worker- or wider stakeholder-owned trust.
Dr Simmonds agrees the potential for the co-operative movement to grow is enormous. ”If we are to double the size of the co-op movement then we need to double the size of co-op development,” he says. “There is a massive opportunity here.”
Last week, founder members of Platform 6 took part in Open 2018, a conference backed by the Co-operative Party which drew more than 400 co-operators, academics and politicians to explore the potential of platform co-operatives to harness the latest technology and bring the movement together.
Related: Co-op News reports from Open 2018
“We are entering very interesting and exciting times with a lot of challenges around resources and energy constraints,” says Dr Simmonds. “The economy is going to have to change radically and co-ops are very well placed to help that.
“Horizons will contract and we are going to have to relocalise trade because of things like fuel shortages. There is a new wave of co-operation coming from the new economics and a growing commitment to solidarity and equity via local problem-solving economies.”
“The last time we had such a massive explosion of co-operatives was during the early expansion of capitalism into large urban centres. The Rochdale Pioneers led the first Transition Town. Every community can be a community of co-operative enterprise operating on a human scale.
“The problem we are addressing is the underfunding of co-ops – so we are building lifeboats rather than ocean liners and making sure they are ready to float. We are looking forward to developing an active and engaged community of practice and opening up co-op development to everybody with a huge amount of expertise.”