Blog article

Scotland's Programme for Government: a co-op perspective

On 5 September Nicola Sturgeon introduced her 2017-18 Programme for Government to the Scottish Parliament. Here we give an assessment of this progamme from a co-op perspective. 

While not ideal, we think this year's Programme for Government contains some very real and immediate opportunities for co-ops to contribute to a genuinely inclusive economy in Scotland, particulary in relation to decent work, community empowerment, social care and the transition to a more sustainable way of life. 

Worker ownership, inclusive growth and community wealth

We’re greatly encouraged that the Scottish Government will “investigate the scope” to expand existing support for employee ownership. We are convinced that increasing the number of worker owned and controlled firms in Scotland will contribute significantly to the government’s Inclusive Growth and Fair Work agendas.

However we’re also convinced that any expansion in scope must include enhanced grass roots support for the development of new worker co-ops. This needs to happen at a community level, with current localised start-up support augmented by a co-op specific offering for those who want it, drawn in on a more systematic basis.

What’s exciting is that the government’s plans for ‘Community Wealth Building’, whereby communities are helped to generate and crucially keep more wealth locally, offer potentially very powerful synergies in this regard. The grass roots development of firms owned and controlled by local workers must surely form part of this initiative – if nothing else worker ownership should be a tool in the box.

With impeccable timing, the contribution worker ownership can make to the government’s Inclusive Growth and Fair Work agendas, and the possible policy options for enhancing it, will be the focus of the next Cross Party Group on Co-operatives, taking place in the Scottish Parliament on 24 October. All our members are welcome to attend. See here for more details.

When it comes to grass roots development the Community Empowerment agenda is essential too. And not just in relation to community co-ops, but also because through co-operative approaches to market-located private sector activity, people can get more control not just of assets and local services, but of wealth and commerce as well. So we’re really pleased to see further commitments to the Community Empowerment agenda in this year’s programme. We’d be interested to explore whether things like the Empowering Communities Fund – intended to support hundreds of community organisations to deliver locally identified priorities to tackle poverty and inequality – can be used to develop co-op solutions that give local people ownership and control of their livelihoods, as well as building their own systems of solidarity, self-help and mutual aid.

Hopefully the plans for a Scottish Investment Bank will also provide some scope to support community wealth building and co-operative growth. Ideally it will have an inclusive growth duty.   

The prospects for this genuinely collaborate economy – not the version currently proposed in the government’s review – are made all the more significant by the advent of digital platforms that can facilitate and coordinate economic activity between otherwise dispersed agents with such efficiency. But this has to involve the broad participation from a diverse mix of people. And to be able to participate people need access to digital technology, opportunities to develop new skills, in relation to digital technologies and more broadly, as well as information about the possibilities of collaboration and key collaborative organisational tools, including co-ops.

The government’s support for community broadband projects will certainly help create the conditions for a more digitally inclusive economy.

Social care

One standout item in the Programme is the stated aim of supporting the development of social care co-operatives. This means Scotland now joins Wales in providing high-level governmental recognition of the co-op model in relation to care.  The government puts this in the context of worker ownership and while this is very appropriate – the gains for both service users and care workers from this ownership model can be significant – we’re keen for it to explore and champion other co-operative approaches to care as well. For instance, co-operatives of micro providers can significantly enhance the care on offer and multi-stakeholder co-ops offer a strong solution for empowering service users and communities in the care system. Our recent research highlights the challenges and opportunities to developing user and community owned care.   

Low carbon co-ops

The Scottish Government has touted this Programme for Government as the “greenest ever”. It is certainly welcome to see Scotland prioritising a transition to a low carbon economy and focusing on the economic and social opportunities within. And from our perspective it’s great to see the government recognising the role communities need to play in making this happen.

Let’s hope this extends new initiatives to improve the energy efficiency of people’s homes, which government says might include financial and fiscal incentives. Lessons from the failed UK Green Deal show that the pain and gain needs to be shared between households and that the more communities can own the process the greater the trust and take-up.  

We also think co-operative approaches offer a practical solution to making the planned deposit return recycling scheme work for small retailers and their customers. If small retailers could work together, with their customers, they could coordinate an efficient system for transacting with big suppliers, with no middle men, more trust and shared rewards.  

We also want to see the government’s laudable ambitions for ultra-low emission vehicles include an agenda for promoting shared consumption solutions, to further reduce our environmental impact – again something platform co-ops could facilitate like never before.  

Community, civil society and social solidarity

We welcome the government’ restated commitment to supporting potential for community ownership of land and assets. It’s especially promising that the government sees community ownership as a means of creating economic, social and environmental benefits, especially in urban areas. With the help of Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament we’re working to ensure co-operative approaches to community ownership are at the fore in Scotland.

We are disappointed the government made no mention of co-operative approaches to self‑build and custom‑build homes in its stated plans to support these forms of development. We’d also like to have seen mention of other community-led solutions to housing, and the growing potential of community land trusts in particular.

This Programme for Government also includes initiatives to provide stable funding for the third sector and to reinvigorate volunteering. These are laudable aims but we believe the shape and form of civil society has to change, to become more centred on social solidarity, self-help and participative democracy. Spurred on by the Community Empowerment Act Scotland’s development trust movement is already embracing democratic ownership and control more than ever, with much greater use of community shares. But we’re also seeing the resurgence of less institutionalised more collaborative action, such as Glasgow’s ‘Self-Reliant Groups’ and community activism organised using online platforms. This activity, often outside the bounds of the established third sector, also needs to be nurtured, though central government might not be well placed to do so.

The decision to begin exploratory work around a Citizen’s Basic Income, if far from action-orientated, is still very progressive and suggests the ‘Overton Window’ in Scotland has shifted significantly on this once far out idea. Our hope is that policymakers consider how any universal income could be part of a platform that supports social solidarity, self-help and meaningful economic opportunity.  

Mutuality needed

Lastly, the Programme for Government includes plans for two new organisations that ideally should have mutual characteristics: a state owned energy company and a public bidder for the next ScotRail franchise. Both of these will require imagination and boldness on the part of politicians and civil servants.

James Wright, Policy Officer

0161 214 1775

Written by James Wright
Updated: 07/09/2017