British movement plans its co-operative strategy

I haven’t yet offered any sort of reportage on the Co-operative Congress on Friday and Saturday, and I guess I need to rectify this omission.

Friday was, to be honest, a lack-lustre affair, with the formal AGM of Co-operatives UK somehow failing to engage the bulk of the audience. Votes, such as were needed, were taken on a show of hands and overwhelmingly carried, and there was never any question of needing to resort to card votes (probably a good thing, because the Co-operative Group would have had at its disposal 9576 votes while most Co-operatives UK members would have wielded 1 or 3 votes). AGMs are not always exciting occasions and consensus is great but, still, it would be good to see a little more energy expended in discussing the performance of the British co-operative apex organisation.

But things perked up on Saturday, helped it has to be said by a classic rallying cry from Pauline Green, former President of the International Co-operative Alliance and now able to give all her attention to the British movement.  Pauline was heavily engaged in the work three years ago which led to the development of the ICA’s strategic plan, the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, and now she was calling for something similar to be produced for the movement in Britain.

Co-operatives UK has already selected the task group to work on this ‘national Co-operative Development Strategy’, which Pauline will chair. The task group is a welcome mix of old hands and younger people, and is also not too bad in terms of gender balance. It’s come up with the three key themes for the strategy: the need to encourage Co-operative Excellence, to practise co-operation among co-operatives, and to be open to innovation. These are, I think, well chosen and helpful themes.

What is encouraging is that there is clearly a desire that the strategy emerges in part from a bottom-up debate within the movement rather than by dictat from on high. So for much of Saturday Congress delegates were encouraged to work in small groups to identify the issues the strategy needed to address and to begin to work towards priorities and solutions. I sometimes weary of exercises with endless flipchart sheets and post-it notes, but this was a gallant attempt to engage delegates in starting what will be an important discussion.

Co-operative Congresses have taken place annually since 1869 but this was the first time that Wakefield was the host city. Congresses in the past were major affairs, with huge numbers of delegates. This was a smaller affair but, you know what, probsbly a lot more participative than the Victorian events ever were. A worthwhile way to spend half a weekend.

Flipcharts and post-it notes to the rescue…

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Yes, Unity does work

On Friday afternoon and yesterday the British co-op movement met together for the annual Co-operative Congress, held this year in Wakefield.

I’ll post some comments here in due course about the event itself, but my first blog has to be about the venue. The conference was held in the recently restored Unity Works, once upon a time the main department store for Wakefield Co-operative Society (built with proper co-operative pride early in the twentieth century), later a venue for punk and heavy metal bands, but more recently run down and – for more than a decade – boarded up and derelict.

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The effort to bring this listed building back into life – as a combination of conference centre, music venue and workspace for creative businesses – is a fantastic achievement, undertaken by a specially formed community benefit society and helped on its way by a successful community shares issue. The end result lifts an area of central Wakefield which was previously economically depressed.

Personally I’d have liked delegates at the Congress to have been given a short account of this initiative from the platform (Unity Works is, after all, a Co-operatives UK member organisation) but unless I missed it no such opportunity was taken. I noticed the name of Chris Hill, who was the development director for the project, on the delegates list but didn’t have the chance to congratulate him and his colleagues in person. I’m doing it here instead.

A cooperative route to economic success

Ideally, instead of being here at my office desk typing a blog, I’d have been at Westminster this morning for the launch of The Co-operative Advantage, a substantial piece of research coordinated by Ed Mayo at Co-operatives UK which suggests fifty innovative ways that cooperatives could help boost the British economy.

The book is divided into chapters covering, among other sectors, agriculture, housing, transport, banking, renewable energy, social care, health and (the chapter which I was asked to contribute) insurance.

Ed Mayo’s introduction sets the overall theme behind the book: “Britain needs to nurture a new approach for economic success. One ingredient for this will be to harness innovation trends that are encouraging a far stronger dose of economic collaboration… The participative model…of co-operative and mutual enterprise, where ownership is open to those who are most closely involved in the business itself, can itself add value.”

The book’s available for online purchase from New Internationalist (itself a cooperative, of course) at http://shop.newint.org/uk/co-operative-advantage-ebook.html

 

 

Desjardins backs British co-op competition

Co-operatives UK are inviting us to vote for our Co-operative of the Year, the choice this time being between the Channel Islands society, East of England, FC United of Manchester, the Foster Care Co-operative, Jamboree, Midcounties, Oikocredit, the Phone Co-op, and Unicorn Grocery. You vote for your fave co-op here.

What interests me is that this year the Canadian banking and insurance co-operative Desjardins is sponsoring the competition. Good… but why? Desjardins is a highly successful co-operative, but one with no business operations in Britain.

Perhaps because it doesn’t hurt for Desjardins to remind British co-operators that it will be staging the third biennial Co-operative Summit in Québec city next year. But perhaps also because it could just mean a little extra international good will for Desjardins’ charismatic CEO Monique Leroux. Leroux’s fixed term as CEO finishes next year, and she is still only just in her sixties. The next step for her may well be in the international co-operative arena. As they say, watch this space.

On the frustrations of incorporating a new coop

Four years or so back I undertook myself the legal incorporation of a new member-run community organisation (a local development trust), established under the Companies Act as a charitable company limited by guarantee.  The process was a doddle and pretty well cost-free.  We were able to use model rules provided by the Charity Commission, which we amended to meet our needs.

Now I am trying to incorporate a new charitable community benefit society (a local community land trust I’m involved in) under what was the old Industrial & Provident Societies Act and is now the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act.  It is a very much complex, costly and lengthy process, despite the best efforts of various people to speed things along.  A doddle?  Absolutely not.

I’m afraid one reason for this is that Co-operatives UK obtains a useful income stream from incorporations of new cooperatives and community benefit societies undertaken using its model rules (as most are).  This is a practice it inherited from the old Industrial Common Ownership Movement, and ICOM’s reliance on income from incorporations was in my opinion highly regrettable.  I am sympathetic to Co-operatives UK’s funding difficulties, but ultimately this has to change.  We need equality in Britain between Companies Act and Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act incorporations.

Cooperative data should be free to search

As the business press reported earlier this week, the government intends to make company data from Companies House free to access from next year. This is a welcome development, and will make it easier to get information on companies, their activities and who owns and runs them.

What about cooperatives? As I mentioned some time back, data on coops and mutuals are held separately, at the Mutuals Register run by the Financial Conduct Authority, and the fees (£12 for an electronic document, for example) are very significantly more than Companies House’s current equivalent fees.

We should be pressing for cooperative records to be free to search, too. Ed Mayo at Co-operatives UK tells me that his organisation has long called for equal and easier access to cooperative data and that they’re monitoring the current development. Time to get lobbying again, I think.

The state of the British coop economy

This year’s version of the facts and figures booklet from Co-operatives UK The UK Co-operative Economy is now out. It’s a useful reminder that there are more coops out there than just the troubled Co-operative Group, even if the Group remains very much at the top of the table in terms of size.

You do have to interpret the data. Britain’s worker-owned coops are shown as, together, turning over £10.7 billion, but read more carefully and you’ll find that almost £10.2 bn of this is the trade of one business, the John Lewis Partnership, which is arguably only a sort-of-cooperative-and-not-a-coop-at-all-if-we’re-being-very-strict.

It is of course famously difficult to define the cooperative economy. Nevertheless if John Lewis and some very conventional farming businesses  get admitted, then shouldn’t the UK’s remaining mutual insurers also get a look in? And what about the building society sector whilst we’re at it?