40 years of CASE: Leicester’s shared vision for co-op development

‘It’s not just about helping people to set up co-ops. It’s about keeping going; to grow and develop, dealing with challenges’

Dame Pauline Green was the guest of honour at an event celebrating the 40th birthday of CASE – Leicester’s Co-operative And Social Enterprise development agency. At its formation in 1982, the agency was called Leicester Co-operative Development Agency.

The celebration took place in the premises of one of Leicester’s oldest trading co-ops, Soft Touch Arts Co-operative – which has been in operation since 1986. All food and drink, as well as musical entertainment, was provided by local co-op enterprises.

In her address, Dame Pauline congratulated CASE on reaching its milestone, while reflecting on her positive experience with co-operatives in her various roles as a Labour/Co-op MEP, chief executive of Co-operatives UK and as president of the International Co-operative Alliance. Co-ops do businesses differently and with more humanity, she said. 

Rose Marley, the current CEO of Co-operatives UK, recorded a video to also congratulate CASE.

Several co-operatives existed locally prior to the establishment of Leicester CDA, including Equity Shoes –established in the 19th century by workers in dispute with their employer, the Co-operative Wholesale Society. But in the subsequent years of Leicester CDA – under that name and its successor titles of Leicester & County CDA and CASE – a much larger co-operative sector has grown.

CASE commissioned a film to mark its 40th anniversary and to showcase some of the co-operatives it has supported. The film contained testimonies to the work of the agency; screened at the celebration, it can be seen on YouTube. Profiled enterprises included Leicester Wholefood Co-operative, which started trading in 1987, and Shepshed Carers, a domiciliary care co-op, which is now 28 years old.

Dorothy Francis is one of the team of five core workers, who are all co-directors in the organisation that operates as a collective. She is also the longest serving worker at CASE, having joined the Leicester & County CDA 35 years ago. She told the celebration that the agency’s structure of itself being a workers’ co-operative is key to its success and longevity. 

“I absolutely believe we would not have survived if we were not a co-operative,” Dorothy said. “It gives us a shared vision and understanding and means that we pull together. It also makes it a lot easier to talk to people about being a co-op if you are yourself a co-op.” 

The great achievement of CASE, Dorothy believes, has been its impact on the people who have worked in the supported co-ops. There are currently around 60 co-ops trading in the city or county, employing hundreds of people. “We have helped so many people to turn ideas into realities,” she says. “And we have managed to stay with them on their journey. 

“It’s not just about helping people to set up co-ops. It’s about keeping going; to grow and develop, dealing with challenges, to take on opportunities with confidence. We wanted to celebrate success with people like Leicester Wholefood Co-op, Soft Touch and Shepshed Carers, and welcome into the fold new ones, such as Great Central Gazette, which is Leicester’s newest co-operative.

Dorothy Francis

“And it’s about doing the job well. It’s about succeeding and surviving. There used to be a CDA in every London borough and major conurbation, now I believe it is just us and Coventry & Warwickshire CDA in the Midlands. Survival should not be underestimated.”

While the organisation has evolved over the four decades, the principles of engagement with the communities the agency serves has remained core to its operation. “It was the great thing about the agency from the beginning: it was a community and it was involved in the community,” says Dorothy. 

The CDA workers were initially often very hands on in early stage business establishment. Seed corn funding programmes in those first years provided important practical assistance to co-ops so that members gained a range of skills and access to resources. 

“There were some innovative projects in those days, which we have not been able to maintain,” says Dorothy with regret.

She stresses, though, that skills development remains a core element of the work of CASE. “Skills development not just for co-ops, but also for us [as workers]. We have turned ourselves into a very highly skilled organisation in order to skill others. We were only the second community organisation in Leicester to get Investors in People accreditation.”

While the agency has expanded and contracted at times over the years, and experimented with a hierarchical structure, it has returned to a flat collective working arrangement and wage parity. CASE also draws in specialist associates as required. 

But it is also the engagement and support of local co-operatives and their members that have been essential to the durability of CASE, says Dorothy. The 40th anniversary celebration included a recognition of the contribution of one of Leicester’s most dedicated co-operators – Bruce ‘Woody’ Wood, who died recently. Woody was a founder member of the Corani Housing Co-operative and also of a car share co-operative and Alternative Services Co-operative, which undertook electrical and other practical work for CASE and a range of local co-ops. 

In recognition of Woody’s contributions, CASE commissioned a portrait of Woody holding his newly born grandson, Merlin. That portrait was presented to his daughter Hertha, who travelled up to the event from Devon – where Corani is now located and in which Hertha is herself an active co-operator.

“It’s important to remember your roots,” says Dorothy. “People without knowledge of their history are like a tree without roots. We wanted to acknowledge that we could not have got here, and survived 40 years, if it hadn’t been for the strength of the people we worked with, both our staff and the co-operators. It was always about the passion to make changes and move forward. We have had so much support over the years, including in the early days. 

“That support was essential in those early days, when no one knew what a CDA was. Woody was one of those who helped to root us. It is very important to recognise that we got here on the shoulders of others.”

Paul Gosling was employed as one of Leicester CDA’s first workers, 40 years ago.