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Let's fix things: Co-operatives UK CEO Rose Marley reflects on last 12 months and looks ahead to 2024

Blog post

Rose Marley
Written by
Rose Marley
19th December 2023
Rose Marley end of year blog

Business as usual is broken. In fact, reflecting on 2023, it seems everything is broken. Social care, energy, housing, our infrastructure, our mental health...  Even our resilience as a nation. Yes, everything seems broken. 

Co-operatives fix things. Co-operatives share power as well as wealth. We prioritise social good and generate substantial social impact and we reinvest in our communities. I'm inspired every day by the actions and activities of our members attempting to fix things, to solve problems and not just for today, but laying the groundwork for tomorrow.  

To understand the path in front of us, we need to understand our starting point (and indeed, what's gone before). We revamped and reworked our annual report on the co-op economy this year to extend to the wider mutual family; to further encompass employee-owned businesses, building societies, financial mutuals. We worked with the Building Societies Association (BSA), the Association of Financial Mutuals, the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation and more to get that baseline to enable our democratic growth. 

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I'm inspired every day by the actions and activities of our members attempting to fix things, to solve problems and not just for today, but laying the groundwork for tomorrow.
– Rose Marley, CEO, Co-operatives UK

Our Co-operative and Mutual Economy 2023 report revealed a combined annual turnover of £87.9 billion. It's a big number, but other nations provide context, and the mutual economy in the UK is small by comparison. Germany has a co-operative sector four times the size of the UK’s as a proportion of GDP and France, while in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand co-operatives amount to between five and 10% of GDP compared to 2% in the UK. 

There’s huge potential and a lot to reflect on; the report points to a growing interest in the ‘democratic economy’. We see growth in the employee-owned sector, credit unions and a remarkable increase in the number of community-owned pubs – over 60% in five years!    

Co-operatives are about people too. Co-ops can have dramatic impact on lives and the report brings to life co-operative solutions. It showcases our members including West Granton Housing Co-operative and Equal Care Co-op, and how they’re tackling broken markets in social housing and social care respectively. 

For the co-op economy to grow, however, we must embed co-operatives as a ‘go to’ way to do business in communities. In 2023 we made huge strides towards this goal.  

The Co-op and Mutual Economy 2023

Backed up by strong data, discover why the UK must harness the full potential of co-operatives and mutuals.

After many, many years of lobbying (from way before my time at Co-operative UK with pressure from across the whole movement) the most comprehensive modernisation of the co-operative sector for a generation is underway. The review of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 and Friendly Societies Act 1992 was announced at Co-op Congress by MP Andrew Griffith (then Economic Secretary to the Treasury). This is the start of the process.

We need to see the development of a more modern and supportive business environment - and we're working closely with the Law Commission, our members, and the infrastructure bodies of the movement to ensure there is a thorough and relevant response to the changes needed. 

Our 2023 data backs up our claims that co-operatives are more resilient (over twice as likely to survive the first five years of business). In the report we draw direct comparisons with co-ops and extractive business, in the knowledge that record-breaking levels of UK shares are held overseas – over 56% in fact! We can all think of a better way of business than sending dividends beyond these shores. 

Look at the growth in community shares, which are a key fundraising function for community co-ops. It’s a more than useful alternative to extraction! In 2023, towards the start of the year, we revealed that more than £210 million has been invested to create or save vital assets or services across the UK using community shares. The key point here is of that £210m, an incredible 99% of it will remain here in the UK - and it’s highly likely that the vast majority will stay within a 10-mile radius of where the share was issued. It’s a virtuous economy.

Co-operation was in full flow in 2023; we're joining up in our work more and more. Over the last 12 months we supported the co-operative retail societies in working together, especially around their digital offer which is a key theme of our strategy, and we are enjoying working with the new leadership at Co-op Group in particular.

Influence the Law Commission review
Our priority now is to ensure our members can participate fully in the review process.

We were also able to deliver on something we've been keen to do for a while – a Co-op Hackathon for our Movement. Promoting digital innovation in the Co-op Movement is a major part of our strategy. We want to help amplify and increase collaboration around tech: how we develop it; how we share it; and how it empowers co-operatives. The hackathon featured 18 fabulous projects from a huge range of organisations, focused on a variety of areas from climate to AI, and brought them together with people with the skills to help.  

This is one of the most challenging times to be a young person in the UK. Young people who know something isn’t right with the world and want to do something about it, co-operatives can be that solution. We held the Movement's second Youth Summit in 2023. At this year’s event younger people told us they want to be more involved in movement-wide conversations. So that's what we'll deliver in 2024 by merging the Summit with Congress. Our Movement needs that injection of youth and vibrancy and that’s what the Youth Summit can help deliver. 

Co-operation works for big business too. This is a key takeaway form 2023. Look at the worldwide exposure generated by Beyond The Music co-operative this year. Traditional competitors including The AO Arena, Co-op LIVE and Factory International all put differences aside to genuinely work together with public bodies and city centre representatives. It gave us a spectacular, co-operative, and change-making festival with the ultimate aim of creating change in critical areas including grassroots support, mental health and social mobility in creative and music industries. 

In addition to helping found this unique response we also supported ‘Bright Futures ‘in 2023 - a co-operative with members including Morrisons, B&Q and Midcounties Co-op - to tackle modern slavery. We were up close to better ways of doing big business on a staff visit to Co-operative Network Infrastructure, another innovative co-operative that presents a new way to own our digital infrastructure. We'll be promoting more of this democratic business growth in 2024.  

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It’s all about leading a new era of co-operation to help grow a stronger, more connected, and sustainable co-operative movement.
– Rose Marley, CEO, Co-operatives UK

Looking forward to 2024 then. What is our ask in a general election year? Well, we launched a powerful policy platform, working closely with our members through a series of policy events, calling for all parties to commit co-operative growth ahead of the next election. Our clear asks, working closely with our members, include: unlocking options for raising capital; removing unnecessary barriers to co-operation; enabling the power of co-operatives to fix broken systems; and building business support. We evidence what co-operatives (and mutuals) will give for this support - from good jobs to brilliant and resilient business to thriving local communities. 

We're not alone. We've created strong political alliances to further this aim. Alongside partner organisations we launched the Co-op and Mutual Prospectus, as well as working with Social Enterprise UK the EOA, Community Energy England and more, on the Future Economy Alliance. We must ensure businesses with purpose work together with one voice in 2024. We’ve been working closely with the Co-op Party to influence manifestos and believe our evidence base in 2023 has helped create a strong call to all MPS in 2024. It’s all about leading a new era of co-operation to help grow a stronger, more connected, and sustainable co-operative movement. 

Another theme of our strategy is to embed the values and principles and become a beacon of co-operation. We had a lot to do in 2023, operationally, to achieve this. We have been consulting with members on their digital experience with us. We've also been working on our membership strategy and plans for 2024 here to help co-operatives be the best they can be - and we've a brilliant advice and HR function to help that happen.

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More than 270 different co-operatives accessed our paid-for advice services in 2023 and we helped set up scores of new co-operatives. We've developed new products, like our risk management and data protection services, to offer our members even more value. We also brought hundreds and hundreds of people together to share knowledge and work together through our extensive programme of events and training. Our Business Support for Co-ops programme, funded by The Co-operative Bank, has also supported a huge range of groups and businesses to start, develop and grow - just like tech consultancy Impact Box in its successful conversion to a co-operative.

Over the past 12 months we made headway to create a strong sustainable and diverse movement in so many ways – like partnering with The Ubele Initiative. We want to explore the barriers and opportunities for black and racially minoritised communities around community share offers. So it’s an example of us speaking to the right people, with the right messages and providing the support they need.

From the our most successful Co-op Retail Conference , which enjoyed unprecedented levels of positive feedback, to a packed out Co-op Congress focused on action, we raised the bar again for collaboration and impact by harnessing the ‘spirit of co-operation' in 2023. As we look ahead to the new year, 2024 will be all about working with whoever gets into power to help fix our broken society and create a fairer society together. In 2024 let’s fix things.

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