On the 30th June, we hosted a Community Shares Practitioner Meet-up in Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley, a town known for its crucial place in co-operative history. Nowadays, it continues to be a beacon for co-operative and community-led innovation and action.
Our wonderfully supportive network of community shares practitioners meet online every six weeks to discuss interesting offers, technical guidance, innovations and best practice. While acknowledging that this was an opportunity to meet face-to-face and get to know each other, our morning workshop session was a hybrid event with colleagues in the Zoom room fully participating in discussions. One participant observed that "it was the most inclusive hybrid event they had been to where it really felt like we were all in the room together".
In the afternoon we hosted speakers from four very different societies on their trials, tribulations and successes. Equal Care Co-operative, Calder Valley Community Land Trust, the Fox and Goose Community Pub and Heptonstall Community Assets.
For those who couldn't make it, this blog will share a snapshot of our day.
Workshopping the future
Over the last decade, since the Community Shares Unit was established in 2012, we have operated in an era of persistently low interest rates and the mantra of ‘better than you would get in a savings account’ trotted out regularly with community share offers. The recent hikes in interest rates are unprecedented for our market so we reflected on what this might mean for the sector.
Overall practitioners were cognisant of upward pressure on interest rates, especially with the types of offers like housing and energy sectors which attract more of the wider ‘impact investor’ market. Where societies are offering a service or amenity in their local community with direct community benefit, they are not seeing the same upward pressure on rates when developing offers.
It was noted that lending rates have increased significantly, with banks and ethical lenders offering around 3.5% above base rate for mortgage style secured lending. This is making some projects which require more blended funding packages not viable at all, but also really making community shares a far more attractive proposition from the organisation's perspective if they can really showcase the impact to justify a lower rate of return.
Feedback from societies who are already paying interest to investors said that they've found that a lot of investors continue to be happy to forego interest payments in favour of reinvesting back in the business or accept a lower rate of return than initially suggested. Having the option for investors of ‘choosing your rate of interest’ from the outset seemed like a smart approach in developing any new offers.
Tax relief continues to be a very useful tool in the toolbox where it's available to offset lower financial returns. We continue to make the case with policymakers and government for a simplified and more accessible and widely applicable tax relief that could be applied to community share offers.
Community shares in action
Emma Back, Founder at Equal Care Co-op challenged our practitioners to think about how co-ops can raise capital beyond the limitations of community shares. As a co-op society, developing an online platform as a critical part of their business, they are looking at how to raise larger sums of mission aligned patient capital from different sources. This has included looking at the legislation around transferable shares, and the challenges of attracting institutional investment while staying on mission and committed to their co-op structure and ethos.
Paul Brannigan, Manager at Calder Valley CLT did a powerful presentation on a number of successful projects the trust have run to date. These included the Fielden Acre Project which raised £270,000 from over 120 members, including our Community Shares Booster Fund. We invested £50,000 as part of our partnership with the Architectural Heritage Fund. The CLT is now being approached about taking on or building various land and assets in the valley for the benefit of the community, including a heritage signal box, an enterprise centre and affordable housing. Paul was joined by a couple of their passionate Trustees who shared with us their highly detailed ‘project viability spreadsheets’ on how they calculate different projects’ capital requirements, costings and what combination of shares, grants and loans make a project viable or not! A wonderfully useful tool.
Mark Simmonds followed with a fascinating recap of the recent community share offer by Heptonstall Community Assets to take on the local shop and post office. Mark has been working as an advisor and Fully Licensed Community Shares Practitioner for years. This was the third succesful offer he has developed in his own local community, the other two being the Fox and Goose pub and Pennine Community Power. He shared fascinating stats on the in depth community engagement surveys they ran prior to the launch and how they ran the whole campaign themselves on their website without using a platform.
Perhaps most interestingly, he ran their share offer documentation through an Artificial Intelligence (AI) programme called ChatPDF, similar to ChatGPT, to explore how close we are to AI taking over the community shares practitioner space… here’s an excerpt from his ‘conversation’ with ChatPDF. Mark's questions are in red.
It appears practitioners can rest easy for now as the AI was wholly dependent on them doing their job in the Standard Mark assessment to reach any conclusions! Watch this space.
We finished up with a presentation from Hannah Nadim from the Fox and Goose Community Pub. She recounted the hare-raising tale of securing the pub in the first place, to the success it is today, with fabulous new outdoor seating area and the ability to invest their reserves in other local community share offers the members wish to support. The Fox and Goose were also delighted to host our rabble of practitioners for the evening, with a beautiful home-cooked meal provided for all by Hannah.
Sunday saw Isla McCulloch celebrate International Day of Co-operatives by laying flowers on the graves of some of our co-operative pioneers, Joseph Greenwood and Jesse Gray, former secretary to the Co-operative Union. Accompanied by practitioners and our local Calder Valley hosts, we then took a tour of the local sites of co-operative interest. You can learn more about Hebden Bridge's co-operative history in this brilliant short film from Co-operation Calderdale.