Co-operative development experts from UK nations shared their view on how to grow the movement during a session at the national Co-operative Congress, held in Birmingham on 17-18 June.
Darah Zahran, team leader at Co-operative Development Scotland (CDS), gave an overview of the Scottish sector – which comprises 586 co-ops with a £1.58bn joint turnover.
Covid-19 has prompted many businesses to prioritise wellbeing while communities supported each other through the crisis, she said. “Innovative ways of being economically viable, came to the fore. And there was also a focus on the collective rather than an individual call to action.”
CDS – part of Scottish Enterprise, Scotland’s largest economic development agency – carries out a lot of research on the co-op sector and is currently preparing to gather evidence for a more detailed overview, to help it develop its offer and seize opportunities to grow the sector.
Through its remit to support growth through employee ownership and co-operative business models, CDS works closely with the Scottish government, whose recent National Strategy for Economic Transformation pledges to “undertake and publish a review of how best to significantly increase the number of social enterprises, employee-owned businesses and co-operatives”.
The government has also pledged to introduce community wealth building legislation – an idea which Ms Zahran says is gaining momentum across Scotland.
From Northern Ireland, Tiziana O’Hara talked about her decision to launch development agency Co-operative Alternatives in 2012 – the International Year of Co-operative – because she “wanted to offer something that other enterprise agencies were not offering”.
Co-operatives Alternatives, which supports new co-ops through start-up and existing ones through growth, receives no money from the NI government but has had various initiatives funded by the Co-operative Foundation and the Hive.
Northern Ireland has 69 co-ops and 145 credit unions with a joint turnover of £1bn turnover, over 3,000 workers and 766,847 members – and Co-operative Alternatives has made a difference to the sector. Between 2005 and 2012 only five new co-ops set up in NI, but after the agency launched, the number increased to 38. Sectors supported include renewable energy, agriculture, IT, housing, creative industries and craft beer.
Despite this progress, new co-ops face many challenges, said Mr O’Hara, including patchy and inconsistent economic local development, a lack of investment in specialist co-op development and a lack of a local registry.
But there are opportunities for co-ops to grow, she adds – particularly in sectors related to the circular economy.
In Wales, there is a better relationship with the devolved government. Derek Walker, CEO of Cwmpas [formerly Wales Co-operative Centre], said the administration has recently committed to double the size of employee-owned sector and to support community led co-op housing.
“I’m confident we will achieve this and I hope we will smash the target by 2026,” he said, adding that Cwmpas is exploring the idea of a Welsh version of the Italian Marcora Law, which allows employees to use redundancy payments and unemployment benefits for worker buyouts.
Cwmpas is also looking to develop a community mutual bank – Banc Cambria, a project financially backed by Welsh government – and is working with Royal Society for Arts & Science (RSA) and the Community Savings Bank Association (CSBA) on the project.
“The ambition is to open, or have access to banking facilities all across Wales – 30 in the first instance with basic retail banking services,” said Mr Walker.
The devolved nations have the opportunity to try different approaches to co-operative development on a smaller scale, which can then be rolled out across the UK, he added.
Cwmpas is also working with the UK Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) to develop more co-housing schemes in Wales.
“CCH were incredibly helpful for us in this area,” said Mr Walker, “and now we’ve got 60 groups that we’re working on, and we hope to double that in the next few years.”
Access to land and funding are big challenges and Cwmpas is lobbying for legislative changes to enable such projects to flourish.
Exchanging information can also help, he said. “We don’t do enough of these sorts of initiatives to get together. We learn a huge amount from doing this kind of activity and what’s going on across the UK.”