When Michael Gove stood at the dispatch box and said government’s flagship Levelling Up White Paper was a strategy “to shift wealth and power decisively towards working people” I had to stop and replay it. If this is what Levelling Up is, then co-ops have a distinctive and pivotal role to play.
So far responses to the white paper have been mixed, often underwhelmed, sometimes derisory. In my view the new missions to reduce inequalities in pay and opportunity, and target wellbeing rather than just going for growth, are vitally important. And not just because co-ops offer practicable, proven ways to succeed. But there is a lack of detail on some missions and on how good principles will be put into practice, especially with the limited funds the Chancellor has made available.
The white paper is a less detailed, less rigorous, reworking of the spatial elements of Theresa May’s 2017 Industrial Strategy, but with some more rounded inclusive economic objectives and a better grasp of social value and the power of community.
Some Local Industrial Strategies between 2017 and 2020 managed to include objectives to support co-ops and the social economy. So, this new and hopefully more permissive policy regime should give bold local leaders even more scope to back co-operative business. The explicit reference in the white paper to supporting the social economy gives me real hope in this regard.
It’s up us to help local leaders do this. We need to bring to bear all the evidence we have to convince them that co-operative growth is desirable, and that funding co-operative development is good value for money. And we need to co-develop practicable, effective options for implementation. Current activity including the South Yorkshire Ownership Hub, Cooperate Islington, Co-operative Development Scotland, Community Shares Booster, Community Shares Scotland, Empowering Places, The Hive and UnFound, will be invaluable sources of insight and inspiration.
Shared power, shared prosperity
The major new tool local leaders will have is the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which is the long-term replacement of EU development funds. Co-operatives UK and our allies, not least Locality, Plunkett, Power to Change and NEF, have spent the past five years campaigning for communities to be given more control over the fund, with more community-led economic development, and assurances that local leaders can use it to grow the social economy. In this we have been partially successful.
The Shared Prosperity Fund has broad objectives relating to inclusive economic development and, crucially, empowering communities. Areas will be allocated funds rather than having to compete for them, which is a massive relief. Hopefully the fund will be less bureaucratic and restrictive than EU funds were.
Based on the details provided, there is a huge opportunity for local leaders and communities to use the Shared Prosperity Fund to help existing co-ops thrive and reach potential, promote and support co-operative entrepreneurship and help SMEs convert into co-ops.
Government says local leaders will have to bring together local partnerships of business, residents, anchor institutions and civic society. But there is nothing like the mandated role for community-led partnerships we called for. Just how community empowerment will fare in the rebalance of power between Mayors, councils and LEPs, is very unclear. Again, it looks like it will be up to local leaders to do this, or not, and they’ll need help from the sector to get it right.
There is no getting away from the fact that the Shared Prosperity Fund is too small for the job. But co-operatives have a unique ability to combine local wealth, social capital and pride in ways that generate additional impacts beyond what can be achieved by public investment or traditional private capital. When it comes to creating a more inclusive, effective, wellbeing-enhancing private sector, co-operatives will give local leaders more bang for their very limited buck.
The white paper ends with details of how businesses, civil society, communities and local government can engage with the implementation of the policy programme. We need co-operatives to be part of this, even if they are skeptical of Levelling Up.
And we need to do all we can to help local leaders and communities use the freedom and impetus it appears they now have, to help co-ops thrive.