2019 Q&A: James Wright, Co-operatives UK

'We need strong evidence, powerful messaging and good relationships with people of many political persuasions, from every walk of life'

Co-operatives UK is the umbrella organisation for the sector, representing Britain’s thousands of co-op businesses. James Wright is policy officer and here, he discusses challenges and opportunities facing the sector, as well as legislative changes that could benefit co-ops.

What were the main policy highlights for co-ops in 2019? What were the main issues Co-operatives UK campaigned for?

 One of our most visible policy campaigns was the launch of our #1MillionOwners campaign in partnership with the Employee Ownership Association. More than 400 people and a good haul of worker-owned businesses pledged support in the first couple of months following its launch in The Times and to our members. We had interest in this issue from government when the election was called. It’s already helped us secure seed funding for a development programme to support worker ownership.

The FCA’s decision to stop charging for access to the online Mutuals Register and to abolish the high annual fees paid by societies were both highlights. These changes will save the sector at least £1m a year.  

Getting commitments to support co-ops in the Greater Manchester Local Industrial Strategy was also a very positive outcome. The Greater Manchester Co-operative Commission’s report will be published in the new year and will make some really strong recommendations to help bring this to life.

What legislative changes would Co-operatives UK like?

 Our number one priority is to give co-operative societies the option of their own special statutory ‘asset lock’, one which would legally prevent capital surplus (what’s left after share capital has been repaid) being distributed among members. We’ve done extensive consultation with members and demand for this is huge. This change would turn the co-operative society into a much more powerful tool in the social economy.

We’re also supporting work on legislation to create a new equity instrument that would be repayable at the option of societies, rather than withdrawable at the option of members. Again, through consultation we know societies are open to this and in some cases very keen.

 What challenges and opportunities is 2020 likely to bring?

There’ll be a new UK government delivering a new manifesto. With the Conservatives returning to power, they have promised to beef up their support for community ownership. 

Away from Westminster there’s a huge amount of work to do influence the work of metro mayors, city regions and local enterprise partnerships. Right now the regions are agreeing Local Industrial Strategies with Whitehall that will unlock serious money for business development. A big part of our #1MillionOwners campaign is to encourage these regional policy makers to support worker ownership.

In Scotland and Wales, the devolved governments are entering their last years in office and eyes will be turning towards their elections in 2021. Working with our partners in both countries we’ll be supporting cross party groups in the Senedd and the Parliament to keep co-ops on the agenda. 

We’re making some headway in housing policy in Scotland right now and need to keep that momentum going.  

If devolved government in Northern Ireland resumes we would love to work with our local partners to secure some policy support for co-operatives. There was a promise of a wholesale legislative review but like
so much else this appears to have fallen victim to the interregnum.

Our biggest challenge is that we’re a small outfit, fighting for a niche economic model, in an increasingly harried world. We know co-ops offer a way out of the straightjackets humanity finds itself in. 

But we have to prove it, time and again, in multiple contexts. We need strong evidence, powerful messaging and good relationships with people of many political persuasions, from every walk of life.  

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