Cut-backs lead to co-op scrap store

Moving from local authority employee to small worker co-operative member must be one of the biggest switches it’s possible to make, but it’s one a small team of...

Rochdale’s PEARLS co-operative — or Play, Education, Arts and Reusable Lending Service — is what’s commonly known as a scrap store, a place where schools, playgroups, community groups and others can go to find cheap materials to recycle for use in play and education. 
At PEARLS you will find everything from paint brushes to pine cones — both new and donated materials — plus a wide range of firms’ surplus stock, roll ends and bankrupt stock. Scrap stores also swap scrap with each other to ensure that all have a good selection and no one ends up with a glut of one particular item.
There are around 100 scrap stores in the UK, many of which were at least initially set up, or heavily subsidised, by local authorities. Sadly in the current climate that number is already dwindling. And when, in 2009, Rochdale Borough Council announced it would no longer be able to continue its 20-year-old scrap store, it looked like PEARLS would disappear — until the staff looked at the option of continuing the service as a co-operative.
PEARLS’ business development manager Tina Wright explained: “When the cuts came — earlier than expected — we had to decide what to do. The old service employed the equivalent of seven full-time posts, some of which were absorbed back into different parts of the local authority. That left four of us who decided to set up the co-operative.”
They received start-up advice and support via The Co-operative Enterprise Hub and were favourably treated by their former employers. “The council gave us our premises for a year on a peppercorn rent and allowed us to buy up the existing stock on very good terms,” says Ms Wright.
But, she adds, it was a big step into the unknown. “When
you’re in a local authority if you don’t know how to do something, there’s always someone there who will know. If you’ve got a staffing issue you’ll contact HR, or if you need a press release you contact public relations. When you move away from the local authority you lose all that back-up.”
Thankfully, there are other sources of help. “Now if we come across something we haven’t had to do before, we ring another co-operative and ask for their advice.”
For all the down sides of leaving the local authority behind, Ms Wright says there are many more plus points. “We’re no longer restricted where we can work geographically. There’s an unwritten rule that we don’t trade in another scrap store’s area but we’re no longer tied to the local authority’s boundaries. And we’re able to do our own procurement, rather than having to go through the council’s channels.”
But it is the ‘sink or swim’ mindset that is perhaps most different from local authority work, as Ms Wright points out. “We started with £50 in the till and the stock we’d acquired from the council. It’s then that it hits home that if you don’t trade enough in the month ahead you can’t get paid.
“There’s no denying it’s scary but it’s also a lot of fun.” Fellow director Chrissy Cartledge agrees. “It’s certainly been a massive learning curve for me. I’m absolutely exhausted every day, but it’s been great for my sense of self-worth and self-confidence.”
One of the original four members found the transition too tough and has moved on but the remaining three are determined to make PEARLS work — and have now branched out into offering advice as well as selling stock.
“Sometimes someone will look at an old box or a length of fabric and not see its potential,” says Ms Wright. “We run workshops to show people how to use different materials.
“We’re also planning a gallery showing what clients have done with the materials they’ve bought here.”
The crucial year ahead will be a tough one. “We will lose the rent subsidy and we know our main customers — schools and youth groups — are facing cuts of their own so we are likely to feel the knock-on effect of that,” warns Ms Wright. The co-op is also set to lose staff who have been seconded to the co-operative through the Future Jobs Fund.
“They have been fantastic,” says Ms Wright. “And although they’ve not been voting members of the co-operative, we have always included them in all decisions.”
On a more positive note, the co-operative has just secured a grant to employ an additional worker. The funding has come from the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority, in recognition of the environmental benefits that scrap stores bring through the reuse and recycling of materials that would otherwise be sent to landfill.
The PEARLS members know they face a tough fight ahead, but with their self-belief and the support of each other they are certainly ready for the challenge.
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