How can co-ops build a fairer economy? Co-op Congress looks to grow the movement

Co-ops are ‘for public benefit, not private benefit’, delegates are told in sessions that look at ways to build community wealth

The role of co-ops in creating a fairer economy – from international to local level – was a repeated theme at Co-op Congress, as ways to achieve the goal of doubling the movement were discussed.

Speakers agreed on the need for new ways of working and organising in an economic system which left more and more people struggling – or, as
Claire McCarthy, secretary general of the Co-op Party, put it: “Some of the fundamentals – food, a home, decent work – are out of reach for many.”

She said co-operation is “a practical but radical movement” which could address this inequality.

Claire McCarthy

Paul Gerrard, campaigns director at the Co-op Group, said co-ops do this because they are “for public benefit, not private benefit”. If you want to get rich, he argued, you would put your money into a plc; you invest in a co-op because you want to invest in the common good.

And he called for the development of a “co-operative ecosystem”, where co-ops work together through principle 6 for the benefit of all. Examples include the community wealth building efforts of councils such as Plymouth and Preston, or the embedding of Fairtrade in co-op supply chains, he added.

Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland

This vision is in stark contrast to the picture presented to delegates by Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland – an expose of corrupt capitalism in Putin’s Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, where oligarchs steal from the public purse at horrific human cost, often launder their ill-gotten gains in Britain.

“What you do is astonishing and valuable because what is desperately needed in places like Ukraine,” he said.

Related: Book review, Moneyland

Mr Bullough said he was perhaps guilty of writing about the villains of the world economy and not paying attention to the heroes. Congress presented some of these heroes in another session, where John Haines of community skate park Projekts Manchester, James Newton of housing co-op developer Leeds Community Homes and Steve Roberts of George Street Community Books, a co-operative bookshop in Glossop, Derbyshire, introduced their projects.

All projects share a focus on accessibility and social benefit. John Haines highlighted Projekts Manchester’s bid to improve access for women skaters, who had been put off by an all-male environment.

Putting on all-women events, the co-op increased the number of female visits from just 82 in 2012 to 3,375 in 2018. Female attendance now stands at 21% – and is bringing benefits. Mr Haines told the story of the father of a girl with mental health difficulties. “Because of the work you do with my daughter, I’ve got my daughter back,” the man told him.

Similarly, the team at George Street Books is looking at remodelling the building to improve disabled access and using tech such as improved cataloguing and online orders for those physically unable to visit the shop.

Related: Andy Burnham asks co-ops to help create a new economy in Manchester

Meanwhile, Leeds Community Homes is looking to tackle a housing market which has “left people unable to live in the city they grew up in” by putting affordable homes in Leeds and York city centres.

All three projects had support from community business body Power To Change, which is funding a new programme, Communities In Charge. This sees Co-operatives UK, Locality and Plunkett Foundation collaborating on a campaign to ensure UK development funds, which will be put in place after Brexit to replace EU regional development funds, are transparent and accountable to communities.

John Haines, James Newton and Steve Roberts

Tony Armstrong of Locality warned Congress that local economic partnerships are often unaccountable, while central government projects often favour quick-return projects, such as hi-tech development in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor, over bottom-up grassroots projects which can deliver community wealth.

The new campaign wants a Shared Prosperity Fund to target disadvantaged areas, including a separate pot – worth 2% of the total funding – for community projects. Mr Amstrong said this means smaller projects, costing less than £100,000 projects that innovate at grassroots level.

“They are easy to access, require low monitoring, are low risk,” he added. “They are great ideas that can transform communities but have struggled for support.”

James Alcock of Plunkett Foundation said community businesses are not only resilient, they also bring social aspect, and offer “a safe place for people with dementia, for carers, for people with learning disabilities”, and an antidote to loneliness and social isolation, especially in remote areas.

From the floor, Nigel Todd of the Co-operative College warned that local community-based organisations struggling for funding often find themselves in competition with each other. “How do we restore solidarity between organisations?” he asked.

Mr Armstrong agreed. “We want genuine partnerships at local level… we have lots of ideas about how that works.”

He added: “Competitive tendering is driving competition and hollowing out market and capacity at local level. We’re working with local authorities to change their practice. They need to co-design services and talk about needs at local level.”

This idea recalled Mr Gerrard’s call for a “co-operative ecosystem” – or, as Co-operatives UK secretary general Ed Mayo put it, “a joining of dots which is about changing the local economy – meeting needs with co-ops at the heart”.