Social care co-ops can make a real difference

Co-operative activists David and Hilda Smith of the Wales Progressive Co-operators are trying to persuade the Welsh Assembly to embrace the Movement’s values and principles in the hugely...

Co-operative activists David and Hilda Smith of the Wales Progressive Co-operators are trying to persuade the Welsh Assembly to embrace the Movement’s values and principles in the hugely challenging area of social care. Here, they set out the case for the co-op model as a means of providing better services for an ageing population . . .

We will not be able to meet the challenges and respond to the increase in social care needs with a single, uniform approach.

The Wales Progressive and Newport Co-operators believe that social care co-operatives are an important part of the mix because the co-operative model champions ethical values and principles as well as economic success through self-reliance.

Responses to the challenges will depend on local needs and circumstances, including the level and quality of local authority and other provision.

Social care service co-operatives have developed in the UK over the past 35 years, but were first established in Italy. The model empowers service users, their families, paid staff and volunteers to participate in the design and delivery of services best suited to them. This is what distinguishes co-operatives from other social enterprises and mutuals.

Most co-operative models also encourage active involvement of local community interests. They attract low-cost communal forms of capital, and active involvement with statutory planners and service providers. 

A social co-op should not be regarded as an alternative to properly funded public services, but rather as complementary and additional to them. They are a means
of testing how those services are conceived, designed and delivered.

The concept of co-operative principles we have promoted over the last few years could be applied beneficially to the provision of social care. The UK Movement and most statutory authorities in Britain have largely accepted our model.

The challenge now is two-fold. First, to translate that theory into practice and show that multi-stakeholder social care co-operatives are a viable alternative in Wales. Secondly, we need to improve the well-being and the quality of services to our ageing population.

We had hoped to establish a steering group to take the issue forward after suggesting the idea in a consultation document last summer. However, a limited response was received so we need to consider a different approach to developing a social care co-operative movement in Wales.

We need to encourage groups of people to identify needs and ways of addressing them using co-operative principles of self-help organisation. This is not about direction from the centre. Deciding what outside support is needed from those with relevant knowledge, experience and expertise is a matter for the local groups themselves to determine.

The value of co-operative businesses has evolved over 160 years as a worldwide Movement, but a pre-condition for social co-operatives is its members. Leadership must be driven by the grassroots if they are to achieve their potential.

Without grassroots initiatives, there is no raw material to build on. One of the main challenges now is how we encourage, enable and support the emergence of local social co-operative groups.

The use of community development methods can help participants to respond to any external support needs, which they themselves identify – possibly by means of a ‘federal group’ that they themselves would elect. This kind of approach will hopefully lead to authentic, sustainable developments that will encourage other groups to participate.

We also need to consider how social care co-operatives might communicate with each other and with the wider Co-operative Movement and to what extent we can assist this process. The Global Media Hub, at, which is owned and operated by Co-operative Press, can help with this.

We can also perhaps learn from the experience of the Scottish Co-production Network. This is an informal and inclusive grouping and is “free and open to anyone who is interested in co-production in Scotland”.

This has a wide remit, but a wider forum involving housing, credit unions, food retail, financial institutions, community pharmacy, funeral care, education,
time-banking and other areas might prove very useful.

It would enable us to build effective links and a shared sense of purpose that a successful 2012 UN International Year of Co-operatives can indeed lead to a truly
Co-operative Decade.

• For further details of the social care co-op movement in Wales, visit:

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