Where next for co-op development organisations?

The sector has been in decline – so how can it be revived to help the UK co-op movement’s goal of doubling itself in size?

If the co-op movement is to be grown, there is a need for development workers on the ground to help new co-ops get up and running.

But the sector has been in decline, and currently there are only 30 co-op development bodies, with about 60 practitioners, operating.

This is in stark contrast to its 1980s peak; the first local co-operative development agency (CD) was set up in 1977, with around 100 co-operative development bodies operating at the peak in the mid-1980s.

Mark Simmonds

Mark Simmonds, from Co-op Culture, warns this decline could get worse because – despite new entrants like Stir to Action and Platform 6, “we are still an ageing bunch of people, with many of us approaching retirement age.”

Jo White, executive director of Birmingham-based Co-operative Futures, says this problem is partly down to the lack of a solid, reliable career path for young recruits.

“The problem with co-op development is it’s not a career,” she says, pointing the recent closure of Bristol’s co-op development agency. “Life is precarious  – you don’t know what’s coming over horizon.”

Her own organisation is fortunate, as it is locked in to two years of European funding for Birmingham and also enjoys the support of Midcounties Co-op, allowing it to do pre-planning with organisations before they are ready to work with the Hive. But “this is the first time there’s been a co-op development organisation here since the 80s,” she adds.

“As a career, what have we got to offer to young people? It’s difficult – they come through really fired up and wanting to do things; they need more experience but also want the prospect of a career, but they’re coming into a small organisation with little room to progress.

“There’s an army of young co-op developers but we really don’t have anything to offer them.”

Ms White argues the movement needs to create a “co-operative pipeline”; although co-ops are willing to pay for consultancy work, they’re less keen to pay for people to go out and advocate for the co-op model. “And that’s where we could harness young people. They’ve got passion and speak from the heart, they’re driven and passionate. How do we use them and make them feel part of the movement?”

She adds: “If we look at widest context, we need to make sure co-ops are part of business studies, from GCSE to degree level. If Labour wants to double the size of the co-op sector, that’s a way forward.”

Related: Andy Burnham asks co-ops to help create a new economy in Greater Manchester

Mr Simmonds agrees that money, and publicising the co-op movement to the wider world, are issues. “We are seeing an increase in demand for business development support from new and existing co-operatives,” he says. “Funding for co-op development is limited and excludes some sectors, as a result of which, much support is delivered piecemeal and often pro bono.

“And there is also little funding available to promote the co-op option. We need a way for the movement to promote the co-operative option to those who don’t even realise that it’s possible, rather than only engaging once they rock up with a draft business plan.”

He says development funding is also needed for areas other than growth, such as conflict resolution and softer governance issues.

There are ways forward for the movement, to raise development cash, says Ms White. “The Co-operative Enterprise Hub “was very successful, it did significantly increase number of co-ops. And if you look at the California, all co-ops, not just big ones, put a percentage into a pot for co-op development.

“Here, we’ve got the Worker Co-op Solidarity Fund where everyone pays £1 a week – if we did that across the movement it would be huge.”

But while the New Economics Foundation’s policy report for the Co-op Party, Co-ops Unleashed, discusses a national Co-op Development Agency as part of a strategy to double the movement, Ms White says: “I don’t think that’s the way forward, although there is room for a policy unit with access to Whitehall.

“A national CDA has been tried in past and not worked – it’s putting all our eggs in one basket and if it fails there’s nothing else. And it doesn’t do that delivery on the ground – it’s important there’s someone people can talk to about co-ops and development within traveling distance; once you centralise things that grassroots activity on the ground disappears.”

However, there is scope for the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network to drive development, as part of their community wealth-building programme.

Related: Co-operators look to a radical past to shape the future

“I don’t think they should be appointing people to work for council as co-op developers, it doesn’t work,” says Ms White. “There are people on the ground working as co-op delivery workers and they should be using them. There needs to be discussion with them about that.

“There are opportunities – but how do we get to them? With the CCIN, the Hive, Co-ops Unleashed, we need to join the dots, and create better ways to build and promote the model. We need to be on the front foot.”

Movements like Extinction Rebellion could bring the next wave of co-op developers (Photo: Alexander Savin)

Mr Simmonds wants to see a more diverse co-op development sector, and sees promising signs from a current influx of activists from environmental and other movements. “They still view their work as activism, being driven by the desire to bring about change rather than to make money,” he says. “It may be that those people currently engaging in movements like Extinction Rebellion will provide some of the the next wave of co-op developers.

“Another alternative is to make co-op development the job of the whole movement involving existing co-ops and co-operators in delivery of support. Two good examples of this are: the Barefoot Co-op Development initiative, being developed by Co-op Culture, exploring how members of co-operatives can get involved in delivery, possibly as associates of existing co-op development bodies; and the new platform co-op Platform 6, which is a virtual community of co-op development practice bringing together existing and new co-operatives and brokering peer to peer support.”

And he says it is important to “bang the drum for co-ops”, especially when business support for the wider social enterprise sector, with its roots and culture in the charitable sector, is often difficult for co-operatives to engage with. He suggests being more proactive when forming partnerships with this wider sector, while creating “co-op focused support programmes to plug the gaps”.

Ms White says it is also imperative to bang the co-op drum when it the time comes for the government to replace lost EU funding. “We need to be ready as a movement, not just one organisation like Co-operatives UK. If we put the weight of the entire movement behind proposal, it will be more power to our elbow,” she says.

Mr Simmonds is less concerned about Brexit. “The bulk of the current on the ground delivery is funded through projects associated with Power to Change and the Hive, which are not EU-related. If we leave the EU, it may be that changes in state aid rules will affect some funding and community finance.”

There are also lessons to be learned from the 40-year history of the CDA movement, say Dave Hollings and Gareth Nash of Co-operative and Mutual Solutions.

“Some things have worked,” they say. “When the first CDA was set up, there were just 20 worker co-operatives in Britain – now several hundred worker co-operatives turn over around £11bn a year.

“Whole new sectors of the co-operative economy have developed alongside the old agricultural and consumer societies – credit unions, community owned pubs and shops, community renewable energy.”

But, they add: “the original vision of making the new co-operatives a major sector in the British economy has not been achieved.”

They suggest that “small, locally based development bodies, funded to work on new-start co-operatives, easily get into the cycle of starting small, marginal, low capitalised co-operatives with very simple business models.

“Generalists can’t be good at everything and can’t hone their skills advising the same type of business for the fifth, the tenth, the twentieth time. Free, unlimited support can be gobbled up by groups wanting to talk endlessly about being a co-operative rather than actually taking the plunge. Equally, support packages of only two to three days allow for only simple issues to be tackled or small gaps in competence of already competent groups to be addressed.”

Mr Nash and Mr Hollings say co-op developers should look at what has worked in different sectors and region, and focus on projects meet the following criteria:

  • nationwide where possible, although devolved in each nation
  • co-operative-led 
  • admin-light and able to respond to requests for help quickly
  • focused on growing existing co-operatives, not just new starts
  • running a framework from which clients can chose their advisers and ideally hold the budget to pay their advisors
  • enough days (up to 10) to do proper co-operative development
  • small start-up grants or bursaries which help even the poorest and most marginalised get their foot on the co-operative formation ladder
  • including generalists at one rate and specialists at a higher rate
  • providing capital investment (whether bonds, equity, grants or loans) which matches the capital raised by the co-operative
  • Encouraging the development of networking and peer-to-peer learning between co-operatives in the same sector.

“All this needs to be backed up by access to capital,” they add. “New co-operative capital structures like community shares have enabled the mushrooming of community pubs and shops and community renewable energy.

“If comparable models for raising co-operative capital at scale could be developed for, say, credit unions, housing co-operatives or worker co-operatives, this has the potential to massively grow those sectors.”


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