Co-operatives UK joins campaign to fight inequality

Projects in Cornwall, Wigan, Grimsby, Leicester and Bradford are using the movement’s values and principles to help build a fairer society

When world leaders and global businesses met in Davos for the World Economic Forum, an alternative campaign was highlighting pathways towards a more equal society.

Co-operatives UK, the apex organisation for co-operatives across the UK, has joined the Fight Inequality Alliance’s annual global campaign, held on 18-25 January, in order to showcase the ordinary people who are coming together to create solutions in their local communities.

Secretary general Ed Mayo said: “We’re working with organisations in six local communities to tackle inequality with home-grown solutions to local problems, through the Empowering Places programme. This provides support for organisations and people to generate and retain wealth locally, and create greater access to health, work, social and cultural opportunities.” 

Abram Ward Community Co-operative in Wigan is one of the six organisations taking part. Over the past three years the co-op has been running the project Made in Wigan, which provides seed funding, training and support so Abram residents can successfully manage and grow their own enterprises.

It has also set up Men’s and Women’s Sheds, where groups of local residents learn about woodworking, gardening and other projects that interest them. And through two community cafes they engage with pupils at local schools using the cafes’ gardens to grow produce and educate youngsters about food production.

“It’s all about creating a bottom-up approach to reducing inequality via community enterprise. Instead of outside organisations parachuting in and taking the money – local people are coming up with solutions, taking action and generating wealth that stays in the area,” said David Baxter, principal officer of Made in Wigan.

Similarly, in Grimsby, Empowering Places Programme is backing a charity called Centre 4, which is working to boost local social and economic regeneration. Centre 4 is based in Nunsthorpe, a suburb and housing estate among the bottom 3% for multiple deprivation, with just 49% of its 16-74 year olds in work.

The charity runs an innovative ethical employment agency, called ERA that helps local people to gain skills and find jobs.

“There’s been a lot of research into the barriers to employment in our area. We’ve consulted with the community and created a model of ethical recruitment,” said programme officer Rachel Button. “When someone comes to us, we have a conversation about their skills and the support, training, education or work experience they may need. We can signpost people to training with other organisations.”

Locals are given help securing permanent jobs instead of temporary ones and are provided with two weeks training before going on a two week work trial to see if the job is a fit for them.

In addition to the agency, Centre 4 is collaborating with local allotments to build a team of volunteers who regularly work there and has set up a digital buddies scheme, training people to help others to fill out forms and complete daily tasks online. The charity is also running a points exchange scheme for volunteering. Points are amassed and turned into vouchers to use in the local area.

In Braunstone, Leicester, where some districts fall in the bottom 1% of the 2019 indices of deprivation, charity B-inspired is working to tackle inequalities. It also runs a trading company that reinvests money into the community to counter the entrenched socio-economic issues that local people face. It provides low-cost and no-cost sports activities and sports leadership training; neighbourhood support via a food bank; befriending schemes and social groups; an open door advice centre and food- growing schemes.

B-Inspired also supports local community businesses. For instance, it helped to set up a community owned football club and developed a former youth centre into a vital community hub.

Another programme participant, the Real Ideas Organisation, is promoting a commercially driven regeneration approach in Devonport and Stonehouse, Plymouth, and Liskeard, south-east Cornwall. In collaboration with Plymouth City Council, Real Ideas is setting up community businesses in parks across the city. It has helped to set up or support local businesses like honey producer Pollenize CIC; Snapdragons, which is developing a community creative kindergarten play area in one of the parks, and the Soap Box Theatre, which turned a disused mustard gas decontamination centre from WWII into a children’s theatre space. Following the same principle, Real Ideas is working with partners on another innovative project – to turn a derelict market hall in Devonport into an immersive, 360° dome.

“There is no other attraction of its kind in the country,” said Ed Whitelaw, head of enterprise and regeneration for Real Ideas. “So we have big ambitions for Devonport by putting a UK first in one of the more deprived areas in England. We’re turning a derelict market hall into something innovative, exciting and with great potential to be a catalyst for real strategic change. Locally, it has huge public support. It’s bringing belief, opportunities and jobs to an area that has been overlooked.”

Likewise, in Manningham, Bradford, which is in the bottom 10% of deprived UK neighbourhoods, the Carlisle Business Centre works to tackle
social inequality.

One of its projects, Made in Manningham, offers enterprise coaching and support to local people to start and grow community businesses. The initiative is funded by charitable trust Power to Change and helps economically inactive women to gain an income independently from their partners or families.

“There’s a correlation between health and work,” community business manager Katherine Wyatt told Co-operatives UK. “Communities with more employment tend to enjoy better health. There’s poor health in this area. And for the women without work, there can be knock-on effects for the whole family. It doesn’t just affect the individual.” 

Made in Manningham is redressing these issues by empowering local women to work together to create businesses. “We’ve discovered that many women have expertise in Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Afro Caribbean cuisines – and that they want to create that food with other women and sell it,” says Ms Wyatt.

Co-operatives UK’s Empowering Places programme is funded by Power to Change and delivered in partnership with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and the New Economics Foundation. This programme aims to demonstrate the role that concentrated clusters of community businesses can play in creating better places and reducing inequality in local areas.