Co-operatives UK: Tuning in to the subtle differences

After six months as Co-operatives UK’s man in Scotland, James Proctor is aware of the subtle differences that shape co-ops north and south of the border. As Strategic...

After six months as Co-operatives UK’s man in Scotland, James Proctor is aware of the subtle differences that shape co-ops north and south of the border. As Strategic Relations Officer, with responsiblities for Scotland and Northern Ireland, he is planning a programme of work to support Scottish co-ops and connect them with Co-operatives UK’s wider networks.

Political, legal and cultural differences matter when understanding the sector’s needs, James says. “We’re like cousins,” he explains. “We’re part of the same family. There’s just a difference in how we got here.

“An obvious difference is our devolved parliament. In some areas, for example health and education, Scottish law is different, and it’s useful to understand that environment.

“Schools are very different, for example,” he says. “In England and Wales many schools have left local authority control, but there isn’t provision for that in Scotland.”

With financial support from the Co-operative Group’s Scottish membership, Co-operative Education Trust Scotland (CETS) has developed a Certificate in Co-operative Studies at SCQF levels 4,5 and 6; equivalent to GCSE, AS and A-level.

“CETS is working to develop co-operative education and we want to see as many school children as possible get the chance to understand the benefits of co-ops,” James says.

Housing co-ops also work within very different rules. Recent changes to the term limits for those serving on the board of a registered social landlord have made life hard for co-ops like West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative in Cambuslang, on the outskirts of Glasgow.

“The Scottish Housing Regulator has issued guidance for all registered social landlords to limits of nine years on committees,” James explains. “Housing co-operatives now must justify how useful their voluntary tenant members are and demonstrate how important experience is to the housing regulator in community owned settings.

“Subtle policy changes like these demonstrate the importance of local understanding and open communication as it can have a profound impact on governance at local levels.”

In some areas, Scottish co-ops benefit from more helpful legislation than their counterparts south of the border. While the Localism Act provides the community a ‘right to bid’ in England and Wales, in Scotland a true right to buy allows communities of less than 10,000 people to register an interest in land and the opportunity to buy it when it comes up for sale.

James says transfers of land or buildings to community ownership are among the most exciting recent developments on the Scottish co-operative scene.

He has also been inspired by community energy projects like Harlaw Hydro, and sees huge potential for similar co-ops in Scotland. “Having somebody on the ground in Scotland benefits the membership and benefits Co-operative UK,” he says. “I’m keeping an eye on policy at the Scottish Parliament. At the local authority level co-operative councils are gaining traction, mainly in Edinburgh and Glasgow.”

Scotmid Co-operative hosts him at its offices in Newbridge, on the edge of Edinburgh. From here he has access to the Highlands and Islands as well as the Borders and Scotland’s great cities.

There are differences within Scotland too, says James. “Compare the central belt, which runs across the country through Edinburgh and Glasgow, to rural areas in the Highlands. We want to support diversity. The co-operative economy in Scotland is healthy, diverse and growing, and we’re building on that.”

Well established giants like Scotmid, Clydebank and the Co-operative Group sit alongside small worker co-ops like, an Edinburgh-based design business, and Highland Wholefoods, a wholefoods distributor and seller in Inverness.

“It’s good to be able to go to MSPs and say the co-operative economy in Scotland is worth £4.2 billion in turnover. We have 593 co-ops. We’re bringing that together.”

James is developing existing intelligence with a view to enabling Co‑operatives UK to publish this information with its annual co-operative economy report, as it does for Wales. He is also researching the advice needs of Scottish co-ops and providing insights on common legal and governance issues.

Still in listening mode, James is asking Co-operatives UK’s Scottish members what they want and expect, and what their visions for co-operation in Scotland are.

Co-operatives UK’s nationwide programmes, for example the Community Shares Unit and the Co-operative Option, and the legal support and advice it offers extends to Scottish co-ops, James says. And specialist support and advice is available to them from Co-operative Development Scotland, The Co-operative Enterprise Hub, and of course other co-ops.

“Having someone in Scotland is an added bonus,” he says. “We’re looking at how communities can deal with the challenges they have practically, in rural and urban areas. In every different circumstance there’s an opportunity to grow many types of co-operative.”

In this article

Join the Conversation