Community shares and the Unity Works collapse

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.

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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.

unity-corner

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.