The Co-operative Enterprise Hub, which is delivered by the Co-operative Group, has suspended its operations for at least two months, pending a strategic review of the society. It means that, while current Hub clients continue to receive support and advice, new applications will not be processed.
The suspension, which began on February 28, will be reassessed in May, but there is no guarantee Group support for the Hub, which provides new and established co-ops with free specialist advice, training and access to finance, PR support and green energy, will continue. The Group has pledged £5m for the Hub and related projects between 2012 and 2014.
A spokesman for the Co-operative Group said: “The Co-operative Enterprise Hub is continuing to work with and deliver support to existing clients. However, it is not accepting new applications for the time being as the Group embarks on a journey to revitalise, re-focus and re-build the organisation.
“Further information about the Co-operative Group’s renewed strategy, vision and purpose is to be announced in May, with an update about the role of the Hub expected shortly afterwards.”
Although co-operative development bodies’ work with existing Hub clients will continue, they can no longer offer these clients extended support. The offer to pay co-operative registration fees for Hub clients has also been withdrawn, as has the opportunity to apply for the Hub’s green energy scheme.
Martin Meteyard, the Hub’s lead contractor for Scotland, said: “Previously clients could ask for additional days of support if they needed them. Enterprise Hub support was based on two days, followed by up to two days extra support. Unfortunately there’s no extension of support for now.
“The biggest impact I’m worried about is how the Hub is seen,” he added. “It’s built up a reputation for solid support.
“In Edinburgh we’ve been working with student co-ops, there are more young people getting involved and they’re looking to the Hub for advice. Both Glasgow and Edinburgh have gone to co-operative council status. They’ve looked to the Hub to provide support. They’re really a bit shocked by this.”
The Hub’s PR service, run from the Group’s Manchester headquarters, is also on hold. Dave Hollings of Co-operative and Mutual Solutions, the Hub’s lead contractor in the north west, said: “I was gobsmacked when I heard this. There is massive value in that PR for the movement, especially in these troubled times. There was a positive news story every week. Now we’re still doing it, but not telling anybody about it.”
Sion Whellens of Principle Six, which delivers advice for the Hub in London and the south east, said withdrawing support would lead to a patchy service. “The Enterprise Hub is one of the truly great things that the Co-operative Group values and principles invested in,” he said. “It meant that we were able to build a national network that could respond to the need for co-operative business advice.
“It raised professional standards among advisors and gave them a set of protocols and a professional development structure. The Enterprise Hub is the only body offering co-operative specific professional development.
“While we can keep the network going on our own resources for a length the of time, without that central funding holes will appear in the coverage and the quality. It would be a real shame to have to go back to a patchy service.
“A lot of us will continue doing it whether we’re paid or not,” he added. “We’re not stopping responding to requests for help and advice.”
Mr Meteyard added: “We very much hope it’s a pause and not a permanent suspension of the Group’s support. If it’s only a pause and the Hub is revived in May, I don’t think the impact has to be huge. If support is withdrawn, the co-operative development bodies and Co-operatives UK really need to put their heads together.
“Some of the smaller independent societies could help with funding. I don’t think its just the Group that’s got an interest, its all the established independent societies. Larger worker co-ops like Suma and Essential, which turn over millions, could also play a part.
“It’s a fantastically successful model. It’s really transformed the environment in a positive way. If the Group withdraws its support we need to look for alternative ways of making sure this work continues.”
• Those wishing to access co-operative development support are advised to refer to Co-operatives UK’s list of co-operative development advisors.