A couple of weeks ago Defra announced a £10 million fund to support farmer co-operation. This comes out of a concerted effort by Co-operatives UK since 2016 to convince ministers that farmers outside the EU will need to co-operate more and with greater impact.
At a UK level, this is perhaps the most significant new policy support for co-operation since the end of the 2010-15 coalition government. This success prompts two big questions:
• What else is currently possible in the world of policy?
• How do we ensure policy interventions such as these actually deliver?
When it comes to developing policy and practice for community economic development we’re eager to hear from people with past and present experience of grassroots co-op action.
Creating the right policy conditions for co-op growth will involve a mutually reinforcing combination of grassroots economic empowerment, improvements to the corporate framework and some targeted strategic initiatives (to promote and support worker buyouts for example). Right now, what are the prospects for making significant progress in these areas? If the UK government will commit £10 million to promote and develop co-operation between farmers, where else in the economy might policymakers take a similarly proactive approach on co-ops?
Policy for the grassroots
While it’s very early days, we think we have a shot at getting action on grassroots co-op development into the Scottish Government’s new community wealth building agenda. At the recent Cross Party Group on Co-operatives in the Scottish Parliament, a number of players in Scotland, including the government, expressed a desire for community wealth building to significantly move the dial on local, pro-social procurement, while also incorporating grassroots co-op development. For us the former is important but it’s the latter that is absolutely essential. Read our short paper on community wealth building in Scotland.
In England, we’re speaking to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to get a practical follow-on from the two year community economic development programme it funded between 2015 and 2017.
Helpfully, the Localism Commission’s final report included our calls for properly resourced and supported community economic development. The body of opinion in favour of diversifying approaches to local economics, to include combinations of community development and grassroots economic empowerment, is growing. But not everyone emphasises the same things. When it comes to developing policy and practice for community economic development we’re eager to involve people with past and present experience of grassroots co-op action. This way we can make more of these policy developments pro-co-op. If you are interested in shaping policy in this area, get in touch.
If the government accepts this recommendation, then the opportunity to develop a programme of support for platform co-operation in Scotland will be significant.
The UK government’s Good Work Plan – it’s response to the Taylor Review – didn’t set the world on fire. But it did contain one commitment that we think needs to be pushed and shaped by the co-op movement: “The government will support the development of a workertech catalyst to encourage greater collective voice amongst the self-employed”. Workertech is a broad concept open to interpretation and there to be claimed. If we can demonstrate a proof of concept and offer something pragmatic, there is no reason why this workertech catalyst can’t support the development of platform co-ops. We’ve already met with the Good Work Team in BEIS a few times to discuss the catalyst and they are receptive to co-operative models. Co-operatives UK has just teamed up with Stir to Action to run a pilot platform co-op accelerator called Unfound. Perhaps we can use this to demonstrate to government what a co-operative workertech catalyst could achieve.
Meanwhile the Scottish Government’s Expert Advisory Panel on the Collaborative Economy recently recommended that it “support innovation and scaling of platform co-operatives or new models which offer a better deal for workers.” We are particularly happy with this, as we gave evidence to the panel on the potential for platform co-ops. If the government accepts this recommendation, then the opportunity to develop a programme of support for platform co-operation in Scotland will be significant and must not be passed up.
As it stands the prospects of getting a major review and overhaul of the corporate framework for co-ops are slim. In Great Britain that is. In Northern Ireland the Department for the Economy has announced that once its registry function has been transferred to the FCA, it will begin a major review of the legislation for industrial and provident societies, which is devolved. In a recent meeting civil servants told us this will be a fundamental review and overhaul of society law.
This is a once in a generation opportunity to give Northern Ireland world-leading co-operative legislation. Northern Ireland might become a paradise for co-op legislation geeks. We will be working closely with our members in Northern Ireland and experts to develop clear, beneficial and well-supported propositions for legislative reform. If you would like to work with us on this, get in touch.
Policy that delivers
Policy action needs to be driven by the needs and aspirations of the members and potential members of existing and future co-ops. This means tapping into real-world trends in the world of work, consumption and community. It also requires that we draw inspiration from across the UK and around the world.
Legislative reforms and new programmes must be co-produced. The users and beneficiaries need to be involved in design and wherever possible in delivery as well. There are things it makes sense for state institutions to do themselves. But when it comes to things like grassroots co-op development or a platform co-op catalyst, we really need enabling public-social partnerships.
And appropriate funding probably helps as well. A £10 million fund to help worker co-operation, for example, would probably be made to go a very long way. And it would be good value for money too, compared with the £230 million government recently paid in tax breaks to just 25,000 executive shareholders. Just saying...
Thank you for supporting our policy work through your membership of Co-‑operatives UK.
James Wright, Policy Officer