Q&A: Don Morris

The chair of Co-operatives UK looks back over a challenging year for the co-operative movement

How was 2020 for Co-operatives UK?

Businesses expect their trade associations to lead them through times of crisis, and I think we did a good job of speaking up for and supporting co-ops. 

There’s been a fair bit of regrouping and resilience planning throughout the year as we’ve adapted our work.  But we’re needed more than ever and we’ll do everything we can to fight for co-ops and position the sector as a key part of how we build back better. 

How did CUK support UK co-ops during Covid-19 and lockdown?

Those first early weeks of lockdown saw our team translating every government press conference into facts for co-ops and providing clarification on what support they could access and how.  

We fought to ensure that co-ops were eligible to apply for government support and created free online guidance to help them understand the HR, governance and funding implications of social distancing measures. 

Our events and training moved online, covering topics that members needed urgent help with such as cashflow forecasting and holding online AGMs. 

We channelled funding towards the emergency response, including setting up a support programme for co-ops in trouble through our co-op development programme, The Hive, supported by the Co-operative Bank. We worked with Power to Change to create a fund exclusively for our community business members, and those of our partners.

What were the key challenges you faced and how did you address them?

We had big plans for our 150th anniversary with a weekend Festival of Co-operation scheduled to take place in Rochdale, but we shelved this quite early on to focus on supporting members and the wider co-op sector through the crisis. All our events moved online, and we consulted members on the issues they needed support with.  A record 1200 people attended these online sessions.

Like everyone else it was all new to us, and the first thing we had to do was understand what our members needed.  We ran a survey to identify if members were facing particular challenges around accessing support, which informed our lobbying activity. More than 17% of co-ops listed ineligibility for any government grant as a major challenge to their survival. 

Joining forces with a range of partner organisations we pressed the UK government to plug gaps for co-ops and social enterprise. Among other things, this resulted in the extension of the Coronavirus Community Support Fund to include social enterprise, £30 million of blended finance for social enterprises and greater discretion for local authorities in the targeting of grants.

Our Secretary General, Ed Mayo, left us in May so the management team collectively led the organisation for the second half of the year. They did a great job of holding the fort during a time of great change whilst working remotely. We’re all excited that our new CEO Rose Marley joins us in January. 

What were the key issues you campaigned for?

As I’ve already mentioned we campaigned with other social enterprise partners to secure a package of support that included co-ops. 

Co-ops are sometimes overlooked when it comes to government policy and it’s our job to fight the entire sector’s corner. Initially, co-ops were omitted from fast-tracked insolvency legislation intended to give businesses in distress more opportunities to turn things around. Following a significant lobbying effort, we celebrated the inclusion of co-operative and community benefit societies in the new legislation. 

We also worked hard to ensure co-operative and community benefit societies were covered by legislation providing businesses with greater flexibility over how and when they could hold their annual general meetings (AGMs).

And after being contacted by our members running arts venues, we were able to confirm that co-ops could apply to the Culture Recovery Fund, which for some of our members, like the Globe in Newcastle, was a lifeline. 

What have you been most proud of in 2020?

As a new Chair, I’ve been impressed with how the team pulled together to support our members. It was like a well-practiced drill with everyone playing their part. 

The advice team identified key issues for co-ops, which we communicated quickly, the research team gathered and analysed data to inform decision making, our policy officer lobbied on key issues and the development team immediately started talking to funders to develop emergency support packages. All whilst working remotely for the first time, in a pandemic and without a CEO for a large part of the year.  

As part of a strategic digital transformation project we also created a new website, consolidating all our websites into one platform and creating new online registration tools to make it simpler, easier and cheaper to form a new co-op. This is a great leap forward and we continue to invest in digital, to ensure our support is accessible to the widest possible audience.

What are CUK’s plans for 2021? What are you worried about or looking forward to?

We’re concerned about post-Brexit transition disruption and increased costs for businesses. This will reduce profitability of strong businesses and push already struggling businesses closer to the edge. 

Similarly, the Job Retention Scheme closes at the end of March. We may well see a wave of job losses and business failures, and the co-op sector won’t necessarily be totally immune to this. 

We’re repeating the Big Co-op Census, which we last ran five years ago. This in depth research will gather information from members and the wider co-op sector on the issues and challenges they face in the wake of Covid 19 and Brexit. This insight will help us to adapt our strategy to support the co-op movement and help us identify new opportunities. 

We’re very much looking forward to our new CEO, Rose Marley, joining us in January. She brings a wealth of experience in the creative industries and working with young people, as well as great media contacts. Raising awareness of co-ops to new audiences and positioning them as relevant to today’s economy will be a focus. There is a key point in time to position co-ops as a way we can build back better, at a time when communities, entrepreneurs and business are more open than ever to new ways of working. 

What innovations / changes would you like to see by / for co-ops next year?

I’d love to see more co-ops developing to their true potential and to see them getting their fair share of business support and investment to do this. 

We’d like to see more co-ops forming and registering online. It’s long been said that anyone can register with Companies House in twenty minutes, but forming a co-operative requires an extra layer of thought, consideration and sometimes expert advice. Our new digital registration tool helps you through this process, and as well as the support offered by The Hive, the cost of registrations is subsidised by The Co-operative Bank. There’s never been a better time to join up to the co-operative movement.

It’s a familiar refrain at many of our events that co-ops are ‘Britain’s best kept secret’ – so we hope to harness the energy of our new CEO to raise the profile of co-ops in the media and show that co-ops are perfectly placed to respond to growing economic and social challenges.

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