Rose Marley summarises and reflects on what we have achieved together as a UK co-operative movement in 2021, her first year as CEO
Almost a year after I made my debut as CEO of Co-operatives UK, as we climb this challenging mountain capped with opportunity, I look back over the foothills we have scaled so far with no small amount of pride. But we still have a long way to go.
As 2021 comes to a close we have much to celebrate. We are making progress together spreading the message of how our co-operative values can help realise solutions to so many important issues – rebuilding the economy, levelling up, the climate crisis and the future of tech.
We’re working to address some of these issues, as you will see in our forthcoming Annual Report, and will continue to do so as we forge ahead into uncharted territory. But we can’t afford to be put off when we reach what looks like our mountain’s summit only to discover we still have a long way to climb.
So, what have we achieved together and what issues do we need to address next? What are our greatest challenges and how do we transform them into successes?
As I arrived at Holyoake House in January, I remember being both flattered and daunted that I had been entrusted with further developing Co-operatives UK. I was excited to raise the profile of the co-operative business model which, as I said in my first blog, I believe to be one of the UK's best kept secrets, providing solutions to so many 21st century problems.
An immediate hurdle I had to negotiate is one that I know is shared by many of us, the public at large believes it knows what ‘co-operative’ means. We know that this is not necessarily the case and therefore much of our work this year has been about shining a spotlight on who we are, what we do, where we sit right now on the business and economic landscape and where we want to find ourselves next.
As our Co-op Economy report revealed earlier this year, the co-op sector has proved resilient during the pandemic, with co-operatives four times less likely to have closed in 2020 than other types of business. And as I reported on Sky News back in July, for the sector to have grown by £1.1billion whilst in the middle of a global pandemic is truly remarkable.
I am pleased to report that we are already making steady progress in raising the profile of co-ops. At the most basic level we need to provide the media and opinion formers with bite sized stories about how the co-operative model is working in their localities, their areas of expertise and ultimately on the world map. In simple terms we need to continue to show that we are part of a global network which exists to make business fairer and more equitable. We want to take more people to the top of this mountain with us by sharing co-operative stories in interesting and emotionally engaging ways. This year our work has appeared in the media including BBC Newsnight, Sky News, The Times, The Daily Express, Sifted and a host of others. These generate interest and, in some cases, have led to people contacting us keen to work in co-operative ways.
This might involve them signing up to our Unfound programme designed specifically to support emerging platform co-ops. Or becoming involved in The Hive, our support programme for new and existing co-operatives, which has supported over 1,000 groups since 2016. Both of these initiatives are funded by The Co-operative Bank and directly help the movement to grow by advising people at the very start of their co-operative journey. As fledgling co-operatives and individuals continue to share their stories via a host of platforms they are reaching a new generation, the future of business, who we know are already open to collaboration.
Voices, like people, come in all shapes and sizes and we have been delighted to welcome those of broadcaster and environmental campaigner Chris Packham (who shared his affection for the co-operative movement at Co-op Congress in June), Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, Mayor of Sheffield City Region Dan Jarvis and actor and disability campaigner Melissa Johns have also spoken up for co-ops. We have been delighted and inspired by their support which has helped us to shout just that bit louder.
Congress for all who attended was a wonderful opportunity to step out of the shadows of the extended lockdown and revisit the concept of meeting in person and sharing ideas in the real world. A definite high point and another peak conquered on our way to the top. If you missed it, watch our short video which captured the buzz of the event, and we’ll see you in 2022!
One of the most wonderful discoveries I have made is just how far-reaching our work as a movement is. The power to do good is inestimable, and perhaps one of my proudest achievements of this year was the work we did to support the Indian covid crisis. When so many questions were being asked about just how much the UK should contribute, co-operatives were quietly working away to provide over £100k of vital support to co-operators on the other side of the world.
I have particularly enjoyed my monthly CEO surgeries, which started in lockdown and enabled me to meet as many members and stakeholders as I could. I’ve had the most fascinating conversations from comedy co-operatives to coffins! As lockdown has started to lift, I’ve been delighted to visit several of our members, including worker co-op council members’ Calverts, community-owned Stretford Public Hall and many of the co-operative retailers including Central England, Lincolnshire and the Heart of England. A real highlight was meeting all the consumer society CEOs and Presidents in person at a dinner hosted by Co-op Group, which really did feel like a special moment after all this time on screens. I have been very much made to feel part of the co-operative family on each of my visits.
We’ve reached many peaks along the way this year, securing around £1million for co-op development, launching the Ownership Hub programme to raise awareness of worker co-ops in South Yorkshire and supporting 17 community co-ops with over £800,000 in matched investment through the community shares booster. We’re working in Preston to help set up food co-ops and our Empowering Places programme supports local catalyst organisations in six areas to grow democratic member ownership and wealth which stays within the community.
Policy wins included retaining Social Investment Tax Relief and a specific mention of community shares in the £150m Community Ownership Fund. North of the border we’ve worked hard to influence Scottish manifesto policies and the co-operation agreement between Scottish Greens and the SNP means those in power in Scotland have pledged to support co-operatives. We aim to ensure they keep those promises.
With over 350 co-ops accessing our advice services this year – our busiest year to date – it’s clear there is a growing need for our co-operative expertise. We supported 100 new co-ops to set up, and brought over 1600 delegates together through online and face to face training, networking and events
As we approach 2022, which I hope will be a year full of positivity and opportunity for you all, we still have so much more to do to reach the summit. This is an expedition I hope you will continue to share with me, rising to daily challenges, exploring new ways of achieving our goals and taking in the view from points along the way. We can see where we have come from, where we are headed - and yes – where we can celebrate our successes.
We end the year with the news that our hard work and determination to share the values and principles of co-operation is getting traction and people are listening including MPs. On 14 December there will be a parliamentary backbench business debate in Westminster on the 'contribution of co-operative and mutual societies to the economy and public life” This is the first parliamentary debate on co-operation since 2019.
It is looking good from here but there is still so much to do. Let's keep climbing together. We know it is worth the effort.
CEO, Co-operatives UK