It is enormously disappointing that Unity Works, the ambitious community co-operative which restored a prominent Victorian building in Wakefield (once home to the local retail co-operative society) to create a performance space and workspace, has failed.
Staff have lost their jobs and four hundred or so people who invested in the community share issue have lost their money.
I have held back from intruding into private grief but I do now, a few weeks on, want to make some comments.
Firstly, despite the Unity Works story, community share issues are still, clearly, a Good Thing. Millions of pounds of investment capital have been raised for a wide range of community ventures, from locally run village shops and pubs to small-scale wind turbines. My own community land trust will be asking our local community for investment capital in a new affordable homes development next year when we launch our own community share issue, so I have a direct interest in this whole subject.
But we need to remember that community shares investment can be risky. Some groups launch community share issues without adequate business plans or prospectuses, and some investors – carried away by commitment to the idea – fail to read the small print. The way forward here is to encourage best practice, and the community shares Standard Mark is an excellent initiative in this respect.
Secondly, we still need vision and enthusiasm. I’m sorry that the vision behind the Unity Works project turned out not to be enough to create a sustainable business venture, but let’s not be daunted. Let’s still be ambitious in what we try to achieve for our communities.
I mentioned a few weeks back that I was participating in this year’s conference of the Society for Co-operative Studies, held at the start of September in Newcastle. I though the event – which among other things celebrated the Society’s fiftieth anniversary – well worth the effort of breaking into the two week holiday which I was supposed to be having at the time on the south coast. Lots of extra mileage, though.
I am always slightly surprised that anyone turns up for these events, since in my experience the Society is remarkably tardy in putting out the date and details. (I know, it’s all volunteer effort, I’m not really knocking anyone). But just so you know, I can give you very early notice that the 2018 edition will be at Sheffield Hallam University, once again over the first weekend in September. There: no excuses for not knowing next time.
How can I fail to respond to the press release that has come through from the Manchester-based workers’ co-operative Unicorn Grocery?
The press release is advising me of some good news which, in fact, I had already heard elsewhere: that Unicorn has carried off the prize in the BBC Food and Farming awards as the best food retailer.
Unicorn, one of the country’s most successful workers’ co-ops and one which has contributed a great deal to the wider co-op movement, is 21 years old this year. It demonstrated the success of raising investment funds from within the community long before everyone else was talking of community shares, and it has already taken the BBC prize once before, in 2008.
One of the things I learned when I was researching the later nineteenth century co-operative movement a couple of years ago was the strength and importance of the co-operative flour mills in several northern towns, most notably the societies in Sowerby Bridge (which also had a mill in Hebden Bridge and was the largest in the country) and in Halifax. What we would now call food politics was an issue early co-operators understood, too. It’s good that co-ops like Unicorn continue the tradition.
I am sorry that the International Co-operative Alliance’s current President Monique Leroux is stepping down after only two years in post. Monique, who previously led the Canadian financial co-operative Desjardins, has contributed a great deal in recent years to the international co-operative movement.
Normally ICA Presidents serve four year terms. Monique was elected for an initial two-year term (because Britain’s Pauline Green resigned two years before the end of her second term) and this may have made it harder for her to assert her leadership over a sometimes fissiparous global movement. Some people were reportedly already preparing themselves for a leadership challenge in the Presidential election which had to follow the end of Monique’s first two-year period.
I do worry about the ICA. It has recently seen its Secretary-General Chuck Gould announce his forthcoming retirement, and its financial base remains more shaky than you’d wish. (It’s not necessarily easy to persuade co-ops than they need to support the global pyramid body). Add to that some somewhat tedious internal politics between different national and regional blocs within the ICA and you have a recipe for difficulties. The forward-looking Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, launched after the 2012 UN Year of Co-operatives, is now looking overly hopeful.
But of course we need internationalism in the co-operative movement, and we need the ICA to lead the way. Fingers crossed that things will get sorted. And good luck to the next President – it’s not an easy job.
There is (or should be) a reminder in today’s press that profit in co-operative businesses is a very different beast from profit in conventional shareholder-owned firms.
The media has reported that the Co-op Group’s profits on the six months to July 1st fell by 48% compared with the same period last year. This sounds worrying. But such a reading of the accounts would be misleading. The Group’s retained profits have indeed fallen, to £14m, but only because the co-op has passed back £29m to members as part of its 5% refund on own-brand goods. A further £6m has been passed to community good causes. Add these back in, and in fact the Group’s profitability has increased quite substantially.
Co-operatives are run to benefit their members, and there are various ways that a consumer co-op can do this. It can reduce prices. And/Or (‘or’ in this case) it can keep prices up, broadly at market levels, but pay members a dividend from the trading profits.
Of course co-operatives have to be profitable and money from profits needs to be retained in reserves. But the headline profit figure is by no means the key financial indicator that it is for non-co-ops. We need to look also at other metrics: how well are members’ interests being met and what social benefits are being achieved from trading, for example.
Page 10 of the latest edition of Co-op News has an interesting headline: Tackling AGM crime.
It is, in fact, a spelling mistake. The story below the headline is about ATM (cash machine) crime.
On the other hand, perhaps there are AGM crimes in the co-operative world which we should be thinking about.
There’s the crime, for example, of putting up just the number of candidates for a co-operative board that are needed, so that no genuine election is needed.
There’s the crime of hiding away the executive remuneration report deep in the AGM paperwork, so that members overlook it.
There’s the crime of making AGMs so deadly dull that nobody turns up (or at least nobody turns up more than once).
There’s the crime of treating the AGM as simply a jolly for those members (and, particularly, staff members) who turn up. Give ‘em a decent buffet, and the job’s over for another year.
There’s the crime, in other words, of not treating the AGM as a key part of a healthy co-op’s democratic governance.
Of course, there are co-ops I can think of that really do their best to stage meaningful AGMs – and I think things are generally getting better. But let’s not be complacent.
Maybe you can think of other AGM crimes for my list…
I promised I would report when my review of Stephen Yeo’s new book on George Jacon Holyoake had appeared in Co-op News. It has: it’s here.
And talking of new publications, I can’t resist mentioning that my own Back Roads through Middle England is out this week. Published by Britain’s first author-run publishing co-op, too: Gritstone Publishing.
Christmas present ideas, anyone?