Preston City Council taps into co-ops’ potential to empower local BAME communities

The Council has partnered with Stir to Action to bring greater diversity to community wealth building

A pioneer of community wealth building, Preston City Council has partnered with development co-operative Stir to Action to deliver a new programme focused on providing targeted support for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) organisations in the city.

The project – Community Anchors: A Co-operative Recovery – aims to develop lasting economic security through democratic business ownership. While the BAME community in the UK accounts for 14% of the overall population, data from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre shows that a third of Covid-19 patients admitted to critical care units are from BAME groups. This suggests the UK’s BAME community is suffering disproportionate impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.

With systemic racial inequality in the spotlight in recent months, the project will aim to empower BAME groups through democratic business ownership. 

Already a known model in Preston, community wealth building is based on the idea of local authorities and anchor institutions, such as universities or hospitals, redirecting their spending towards locally owned businesses, in order to increase local wealth. Between 2012-13 and 2016- 17 – across six Preston anchor institutions – the council increased the amount of procurement spent within Preston by £74m.

The project will aim to ensure businesses reflect the diversity of modern Britain and work in the most marginalised communities. Though specific demographic data is currently not available, some estimates put the proportion of BAME co-operatives in the UK as low as 1-2% of the sector as a whole.

Co-ops as a tool of economic justice

The idea of co-ops as a tool for economic justice has been tried and tested in other countries. In the US the number of worker co-ops have been increasing in recent years with minority communities at the heart of this boom.

“There have been interventions in the co-operative movement in the past that are not really part of the conversation, or part of co-operative development in a broad sense now. We are trying to host a conversation about social justice and marginalised groups,” says Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, managing director of Stir to Action.

Preston City Council increased the amount of local procurement spend by £74m over four years

Key to Stir to Action’s approach will be co-producing the programme with the groups that will benefit, including BAPS Hindu Mandir, Preston United Youth Development Programme, and Preston Windrush Generation and Descendants UK. The project will support local organisations to become ‘community anchors’ that can promote the cultural relevance and benefits of co-operatives through awareness-raising activities, and also signpost their members and users to the latest funding opportunities and business support available. Starting at the beginning of November, the six-week programme will end in early December and will be followed with post-programme support and plans for next steps.

“It will be a dynamic co-produced programme where we’re constantly asking our community – What are their needs?” explained Mr Gordon-Farleigh. “How can we, as a sector, make this easier, make it more culturally relevant, for them to support their members and their users to understand the co-operative options and support them over the next couple of years?”

Omar Khan from Preston United Youth Development Programme added: “The families we provide services for work in the lowest-paid jobs, including takeaways and restaurants, many are self-employed taxi drivers and live in large households with very little if any disposable income. Co-operatives are a relatively unknown entity within our community and require an introduction from a trusted community anchor like us. We want to encourage long-term sustainable employment for local people created by local people, who then stay in the community and spend the money here.”

‘Co-operatives are a relatively unknown entity within our community and require an introduction from a trusted community anchor like us’ – Omar Khan from Preston United Youth Development Programme

Sahara in Preston has supported BME women since 1991 and helped many to improve their employability skills and enter the job market. “By forming co-operatives, women could come together and become small business units,” said Sahara’s Zafar Coupland. “We have already identified several areas for potential development, including childcare, cooking, sewing, and taxi driving. By being part of a co-operative means they could have an income stream, control over their lives, develop confidence, and build self-reliance and independence.”

A key challenge for some BAME communities is the fact that English is not their first language. This makes accessing funding or business support more difficult – the programme will be taking this into account and aims to produce guidance in multiple languages.

Councillor Nweeda Khan, cabinet member for Communities and Social Justice at Preston City Council, said: “The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on BAME communities who are often among the most vulnerable people in our society. I am proud to be part of this ground-breaking project giving minority communities training and opportunities in business that may have previously been out of reach. I am excited to see ideas and passions from all parts of our community come together to bring opportunity to minority communities in a way that benefits everyone.”

Councillor Freddie Bailey, cabinet member for Community Wealth Building at Preston City Council, also supports the project: “We are pleased to be teaming up with Stir to Action on this exciting project that tackles a deep-rooted inequality in our society. Community Wealth Building provides a model for communities to come together in shared ownership of business opportunities, and it’s time that these opportunities were made available to everyone. I am excited to see what ideas and opportunities arise from this project and to help build on worker co-operatives not just in Preston, but across the region,” he said.

Business support often excludes BAME communities

Stir to Action says that most business support programmes want to deliver quick results and therefore focus on individuals at the latter stages of business development who are ready to register a business and just about ready to raise finance. The project will aim to address this by focusing on the pre-technical stage.

“We engage at the earliest stage possible and support a group of community anchors to build awareness and interest in the co-op model, before we even talk about legal structures or registering business or business plans.”

Could this programme be replicated elsewhere? Mr Gordon-Farleigh says other local authorities have expressed interest in the model.

“We’re looking to show what we can do in a short period, but we aim to take this pilot forward and secure more support in the future, to really build it out and embed it more deeply within different cities across the UK.” he added.

James de le Vigne, head of the Co-operatives UK Development Unit, said: “Co-operatives can be pivotal in helping our communities and country build back better from Covid-19. Initiatives like this, which can be replicated across the country, are essential to opening the co-operative movement to parts of our communities that have been hit hardest and stand to gain the most.”