Community shares look for higher standards

I’ve been delighted at the growth in recent years of community share issues, supported by the joint Locality/Co-operatives UK community shares project based in Manchester. But I’ve also been increasingly concerned that some community groups, carried away probably by sheer enthusiasm, have been inviting people to buy shares without really having anything like an adequate business plan to show them. There will unfortunately undoubtedly be business failures, and investors who will lose money, as some of the early community share-funded initiatives unravel.

The Community Shares Standard Mark, being launched today, is an attempt to impose some basic minimum standards and give some kind of reassurance for would-be investors. It’s a sensible idea, even though it’s possible to quibble with the details: the standard mark is only available to ventures who pay for consultancy time from one of a set list of practitioners, for example.

Incidentally I like to claim that a workers’ coop I was once involved in was one of the first (perhaps even the first?) to appeal for capital from supporters in this sort of way (in our case through community loanstock rather than through community shares). This was in 1979, and enough money arrived to enable us to buy a shop premises in Milton Keynes. Anyone know of any earlier examples?

Making links: cooperatives and trade unions

Deadlines (and life generally) have meant that I have not had time  to report on an interesting seminar on links between coops and trade unions which was organised by the Co-operative College last Wednesday in London.

There were some stimulating presentations, including one from the Musicians Union who described how in various parts of the country school music teachers – as a response to the loss of their previous employment status with local authorities – are banding together in cooperatives. The MU has produced an excellent handbook Altogether Now:  A Guide to Forming Music Teacher Co-operatives, based on experiences gained at a pioneering cooperative in Swindon set up in 1998.

Both the trade union and the cooperative movement know that they share the same historical roots and the desire for a deeper relationship today was clearly expressed at the seminar.  The development of cooperative schools has seen a useful link made between the Co-operative College and some of the teachers’ unions.

But there remain tensions. As Matt Dykes from the TUC said, his first objective is to see workers who deliver public services remaining as public employees. The implication was that some sort of cooperative arrangement may be better than outright privatisation, but is still something of a fallback.

More fundamentally it was hard to disagree with Cliff Mills of Mutuo, who called for the traditional assumption that public ownership means just state ownership to be re-examined. Like Cliff, I’d maintain that there are other ways that public ownership can be established (some of which may take us back to ideas tried out in the early days of the coop movement in Britain).

If you’re interested in this area and haven’t already come across it, the ILO report from 2013 Trade Unions and Worker Cooperatives: Where are we at? is worth a good look.

Taking direct action, (French) cooperative style

The closure of the Channel Tunnel and Dover-Calais port on Tuesday, which caused so much fury in the British tabloid press, has a direct co-operative connection: it was the result of industrial action by members of the SCOP  SeaFrance workers’ co-operative, fighting to save their jobs following the recent decision by Eurotunnel to sell two ferries and cancel the management agreement with their coop. (For the background see my previous postings). The issue of whether the cooperative will be able to survive remains a very live one at the moment in France. More updates here, as and when.

And the winner is…

Midcounties Co-operative Society were announced last night at the Co-operative Congress as winners of this year’s Co-op of the Year award, an outcome which was both deserved and (as Midcounties’ Chief Executive Ben Reid effectively admitted) unfair.

Deserved, because Midcounties is well run with a strong Board, strong senior management team and a strong commitment to co-operation (even if their Co-operative Energy subsidiary is doing something very strange to online access to my account with them at the moment). Unfair, because the award goes to whoever can assemble the most votes cast over the internet and frankly Midcounties has a lot more customers to ask for support than the smaller co-ops that were also in the running.

On the other hand, as Ben Reid went on to point out in his acceptance speech, it’s not every supermarket chain that could get its customers to go home, log on, and cast a vote in support of the business. Midcounties is something of a reproach to the Co-operative Group in this respect – or should I say that it simply offers a pointer for how the Group can sort itself out in the future?

Pauline Green to step down as ICA President

Dame Pauline Green announced last night that she is standing down as President of the International Co-operative Alliance. The news, which confirms what had begun to be something of an open secret in the movement, was given to the Co-operative Congress in Birmingham, with Pauline going out of her way to thank British co-operators for their support during her Presidency.

Pauline will continue in post until the ICA’s conference (taking place in Turkey, in November), when she will have completed six years as President. She advised fellow ICA Board members of her decision in a letter three days ago. She leaves two years before the end of her second four-year term, and told Congress that her decision was partly taken following the Co-operative Group’s decision to no longer support financially her position.

Pauline described to Congress her trajectory in the co-operative movement, from early days as a Woodcraft Folk leader to the high-level role she has played, including for example speaking on behalf of the worldwide movement at the UN General Assembly. There is no doubt that she has been an extraordinarily successful leader of the ICA and a powerful advocate for co-operation, giving a status to the position of ICA President which previous incumbents have never before managed to achieve. She can step down secure in the knowledge that the ICA is now in a far stronger position than it was when she first joined the ICA board, at the time when the organisation’s whole future was genuinely in doubt.

She’ll be much missed.

So now we wait to see whether the incoming ICA President, when they are chosen, will be able to match Pauline’s skills and achievements. Interestingly, it’s not at all impossible that she’ll be replaced by another woman. The ICA Board includes two extremely competent women, both from Canada and both from financial co-operatives. Kathy Bardswick is from anglophone Canada, and is currently CEO of the major insurance firm The Co-operators. Monique Leroux comes from the francophone side,and is CEO of Desjardins, the Quebec-based banking and insurance co-operative. Perhaps helpfully for Leroux, Desjardins have of course hosted the two International co-operative Summits (in 2012 and 2014) and are arranging a third next year.

Both Bardswick and Leroux might well welcome the chance to increase their involvement in the global co-operative movement (Leroux’s fixed term as CEO at Desjardins runs out next year). We’ll have to see what transpires.

Dover-Calais ferry coop hits turbulent waters

Sadly it is looking increasingly unlikely that British holidaymakers will be able to choose a cooperative option when planning to take their car across to France.

The future of the workers cooperative (SCOP SeaFrance) based in Calais, which employs over 600 staff, is highly uncertain. Eurotunnel, which currently owns the My Ferry Link Dover-Calais ferries had previously contracted the management of the service to the cooperative. However, it withdrew from this agreement two days ago (June 2). SCOP SeaFrance is now likely to have to go into legal administration.

The story is complicated: the UK Competition and Markets Authority had ruled that Eurotunnel was breaking competition law by owning the ferries as well as the Channel Tunnel, and Eurotunnel put its ferry business up for sale in January.  As a consequence the cooperative joined a broader social enterprise venture which made a formal bid for the business, one of several received.

However after all this a major surprise: the British supreme court ruled last month that Eurotunnel was not, in fact, in breach of competition law. Eurotunnel say that, despite this, the sale is going ahead – and that their previous decision to terminate the deal with SCOP SeaFrance will not be revoked.

There remains a slim chance that a new cooperative solution of some kind may be possible.