Co-operatives UK has received a £400,000 commitment from the Co-op Bank, which will be invested in its Business Support for Co-operatives scheme (formerly known as The Hive).
Since 2016, the Bank has invested £2.5m into the scheme, which delivers tailored business support and mentoring for start-ups and existing co-operatives, and supports businesses looking to convert to worker or community ownership.
The programme also offers webinars to attract new audiences to the idea of starting a co-operative, free online resources and digital tools, including subsidised registration, for start-ups, and after-care packages including access to free business banking from the Co-operative Bank.
“We are seeing increased demand from people looking to start and use fairer businesses,” said Rose Marley, CEO of Co-operatives UK. “Co-operatives are a better way to do business and transform people’s lives every day. By acting collectively, we can create fairer and more ethical ways to trade, consume and live.
“Our partnership with the Co-operative Bank is about the opportunities democratically owned and run businesses offer people, communities and the UK economy – as well as business support. We want more people to understand the power of co-operation.”
The scheme, in its seventh year, has enabled support for more than 1,200 groups. This additional funding will offer support at earlier stages to encourage more exploration of this route as an option for business start-ups. Co-operatives UK says it will also be targeting “hard-to-reach demographics to inspire them to consider co-operatives as a way of having a say in where they work, live and consume”.
“Our business has deep and historic roots in the co-operative movement,” added Bank CEO Nick Slape. “By supporting Co-operatives UK, we’re committed to championing the future of co-operatives across the UK. It’s great to see so many of them thriving, particularly through funding allocated through the Business Support for Co-ops scheme.”
Who has the scheme supported?
In recent years an increasing number of independent community food shops and wholesalers have applied for support – with loose food and zero-waste retailers becoming increasingly popular due to the cost of living and climate crises. Sonas Co-op in Northern Ireland is Lisburn’s first zero-waste loose food refill store, café and event space, created by local people with a vision to promote sustainability, create community and stimulate local business.
“We were advised on the structure of our co-op and, as founders and directors, it helped us understand the implications and responsibilities of that,” said Julie Hooley, Sonas co-founder. “It made us have honest conversations and have access to useful resources that helped us know what to do.”
Healthcare companies have also benefitted from the scheme. Signalise is an innovative sign language interpreting service that connects deaf people, interpreters and healthcare staff, which applied for support from the Business Support for Co-ops scheme. Owned and run jointly by interpreters and deaf people, it is a far cry from profit-led corporations that dominate the sector.
Signalise is now a sole provider on a large NHS framework for 19 NHS trusts in Merseyside. It is also developing a video interpreting service and undertaking outreach to evolve the service.
“Deaf users can log-on to the Signalise platform and tell us who their favourite interpreters are. With private agencies, deaf people don’t have a say,” said Jen Bird, Signalise Founder.
The support helped us start out on a strong footing, and we’ve had great feedback from our members about how reassuring that is. These kinds of initiatives are being born out of a community driven business, which we are very proud of.”
The Future of the Bank?
The announcement comes amid speculation around the future of the Co-op Bank. Once fully owned by the Co-op Group, 80% of its shares were sold to hedge funds in 2013 as part of a stock market flotation to rescue the Bank following the discovery of a £1.5bn capital hole. Its remaining 20% was sold off in 2017, but Co-operatives UK said the Bank could continue to use the ‘co-operative’ name subject to a regularly monitored compliance agreement, based on formal criteria set in 2015.
Last week (14 April), Reuters reported that the Bank is “in the early stages of exploring strategic options” and has been “working with advisers at PJT Partners and Fenchurch Advisory to devise ways to create value for its owners […] In addition to mergers and acquisitions, the options include a sale of the bank and an initial public offering (IPO)”.
But Shaun Fenson from Save Our Bank – the campaign that aims to see an eventual return of the bank to majority cooperative ownership – isn’t overly concerned. “We see these stories from time to time,” he said. “Most of the owners will want an exit – nothing new or particularly alarming there. Now that the bank is in profit, we imagine they see it as a good time to see if there’s any interest. We think however that the owners do realise that the principal value of the bank is in its distinctive ethical stance. They will know that being careless of this in a sale process would not be in their financial interest.”
To find out more about the Business Support for Co-ops scheme and the support available visit www.uk.coop/support