Co-ops and commons approaches to reviving places

big fishAs inequality and concentration of wealth return to 19th century levels, can ownership and power be democratised through a revival of the commons and the resurgence of co-operative approaches? We asked seven experts to give their views

As Thomas Piketty’s work has shown, concentration of wealth is reaching levels similar to those seen in the early 19th century. In 1810 the top 10% owned 80% of the wealth in the UK; in 2010 the figure was 70%. Britain is now the most unequal country in Europe and the impact of such inequality is playing out in every aspect of life, from housing and education to health and democracy.

For local economies that have been in decline since the 1970s, income inequality stacks the odds against them re-building their population base and recreating flourishing places for all. As the public sector shrinks and the private sector steps into the breech, corporations and private interests are further sealing and concentrating power and ownership. Many of the things considered vital for life – from energy and water to public space and democracy – have been taken over or co-opted by corporate interests.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the issue of land. The social cleansing of London to release land value – reported in New Start in 2009 – has accelerated in recent years as social housing is sold off. The high profile campaign by the E15 campaigners in Newham shows the power of resistance but our commentators argue that without land reform, inequalities will continue.

In this issue of New Start we consider ways in which more democratic forms of ownership – of land, housing, workplaces and the public realm – can revive our places.

In the series of essays that follow we consider how land ownership can be democratised through the new garden city movement, through ‘common good’ placemaking, more co-operative forms of ownership and new models for community investment.

We make the case for a bigger social economy in the UK, assess the power of co-operatives to revive local economies, and offer ideas for how a local civic economy can be kickstarted.

Later in the issue we meet Tessy Britton who has documented and helped expand a new ‘urban commons’ of people-led initiatives which are helping re-build social capital and local power, and report on how Lambeth Council’s co-operative vision is developing on the ground.

In the US worker co-ops and other models for community wealth building and gaining momentum. John Duda outlines policies for more equitable places and we talk to Ed Whitfield who is helping people to regain power in the southern states of the US.

Finally, we scan the world for examples of the emerging movement for building co-operative local economies, from Wales to North Carolina.

In recent months we have witnessed the renewal of civic and democratic life from Scotland to Hong Kong. People-led actions in local areas – from resisting land grabs to finding new ways to talk to their neighbours – are building a new power dynamic and bringing new hope to areas feeling the impact of growing inequalities. As communities begin to exercise their democratic muscles again they are gaining a sense that there is an alternative to the status quo and that they – the people – can help build it.Little fish for infocus

1. Common good placemaking By Kate Swade

2. Land: the elephant in the room By Pat Conaty

3. How to housebuild co-operatively By Steve Bendle

4. We need a social economy By Ed Mayo

5. Places as platforms for civic collaboration By Joost Beunderman

6. Co-operatives and local growth By Derek Walker

7. A new model for community investment By Martin Large


Kate SwadeCommon good placemaking

By Kate Swade, development manager at Shared Assets

The way we do places is changing. After World War Two, the state – particularly local government – led the creation and development of our towns and cities. From active planning, through design, building and management, the state used to hold the many levers of place.

This has been changing for a long time: it’s hard now to imagine councils routinely employing architects and building housing and other amenities themselves. A key impact of austerity is the continued retreat of the state from various parts of placemaking, and it tends to be the private sector that is stepping in.

Outsourcing of planning and development control, delivery of almost all design and building and increasingly the management of public open and green space: the private sector’s role in our towns and cities is increasing, filling the gap left by the state.

For many people, this is an uncomfortable state of affairs. The basic contract of democratic accountability between citizen and state becomes one step removed. Maybe less obviously, this process also privatises value. Those who create the value in places – the people who live and work there, who spend money, shop, trade, eat, laugh and loiter in the streets – don’t benefit from that value. They don’t share in the success (and often ‘success’ results in increasing prices and rents, pushing the people who have created the value in a place out of it).

It is in this area, in this gap between the creation of value and those who benefit from it, that ‘common good placemaking’ may offer a useful framework. There is a multiplicity of approaches that we think fall under this banner, from garden cities and community land trusts, to development trusts, hackspaces and community farms. They all have a commitment to share value, to enrich the whole community rather than just individuals: to put people and the environment at the heart of places, and grow local prosperity rather than shareholder profits.

We were pleased to help organise the recent event in Letchworth around this concept of common good placemaking. There are many people exploring and creating places for the common good, and Letchworth was the beginning of a process aiming to bring them together. The rich discussions, debate and questioning helped us to reflect on what kind of principles might underpin the creation and maintenance of places that serve the common good.

A multiplicity of approaches fall under the banner of common good placemaking,

from garden cities to development trusts, hackspaces and community farms

There are three roles that are crucial in the creation of any place:

  • Place-shaping: the rules, requirements and specifications of development
  • Place-making: the design and construction
  • Place-keeping: the long term management and stewardship of a place

There is a wide and varied set of approaches, tools and models that encompass all of these functions. They will vary hugely from place to place, but many of those present at Letchworth were passionate about the different types of ‘common good’ approaches that could fulfil all of these functions. Drawing on the discussions on the day, we would like to suggest some principles that might be common to all of these approaches:

Value principles

  • Land value should be held in trust, and increases in value collectivised rather than privatised
  • Local money should flow locally, supporting a vibrant economy and building prosperity

Governance principles

  • The role of the state should be enabling rather than controlling
  • Those who benefit from a place, and create value within it, should be involved in its governance.
  • Subsidiarity: decisions should be made at the lowest appropriate level

Design principles

  • There is no ‘one size fits all’: the particularity of place and context is crucial
  • More than housing: places need an economic base
  • Design for the long term: places need to be flexible enough to allow for evolution

Each of these points could merit a further essay. One of the key tensions to come of Letchworth was about the balance between utopian visions of the future and the need to do something now. It’s instructive to look elsewhere to examples of placemaking that embrace some or all of these principles.

Bologna has declared itself a ‘commons city’, bringing subsidiarity to the street corner and developing new forms of collaborative governance. Specific urban commons have been identified and management partnerships between city officials and local residents have been developed.

The Catalan Integral Cooperative takes a more radical approach, eschewing relations with the state, and supporting self-managing autonomous communities pursuing the common good, such as Calafou, a co-operatively run ex-industrial site that includes housing, permaculture and ‘eco-industrial’ workspace.

Led by its innovative mayor, Seoul in South Korea, is positioning itself as a ‘sharing city’, actively supporting car and commodity sharing and aiming to build more trust among its residents. Barcelona is aiming to be a self sufficient, smart city, with a network of Fab Labs making much of what the city needs.

The state and private sector have important roles to play in the future of our towns and cities, but these are not fixed. We think that the space between the market and the state needs to be further defined and grown, and that common good orientated approaches have the potential to create places that work for the 21st century.

Too often these approaches don’t often have visibility or credibility, on either a policy or practice level. I walked away from Letchworth wondering what the best way of harnessing some of the amazing passion and energy in that room would be.

Can we come together around common principles?

PatConaty1Land: the elephant in the room

By Pat Conaty, research associate at Co-ops UK

By 2028 the UK population will increase by 7 million. But where will they find a home in a land with already 1.7 million households on the housing waiting list and over half a million living in overcrowded homes? The absurdity of our economy is self-evident, with housing earning more than people in many regions.

Letchworth Garden City recently held a second one-day event to discuss the urban crisis. Those attending included experts working on community economic development, community land trusts, co-operative housing, community food, energy and finance.

What the Letchworth debates agreed is that the land question is the elephant in the room. Few are aware that a mere 36,000 people (0.06% of the population) own about half the land in Britain. Practical land reform is crucial to solving the urban crisis.

In 1852, John Stuart Mill proposed an affordability remedy: convert land into commonwealth with a long lease to (a) control rising costs and (b) capture socially both the ‘unearned increment’ and economic rent for the welfare of all.

Ebenezer Howard, the founder of Letchworth Garden City in 1903, showed how to put Mill’s insights into practice through a novel ‘co-operative land society’.

What is striking is the similar way garden cities steward land for community benefit and how UK community land trusts do this today. However the garden city mission was more ambitious, as this 1919 definition highlights:

‘A garden city is a town designed for healthy living and industry of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life but not larger, surrounded by a rural belt; the whole of the land being in public ownership, or held in trust for the community.’

No other urban land reform initiative has

matched the self-financing economic success of Letchworth

By holding all the land in co-operative ownership, Letchworth, the first garden city, was able to capture lease income from the land, from commercial buildings and to reinvest that money continuously in community improvements.

By 1945 Letchworth was generating and capturing economic value through mutually owned infrastructure, including: water, sewerage, gas, electricity, roads, transport services, places of employment, farmland, schools, hospitals and recreational amenities. These assets and economic rent had become co-operative commonwealth harnessed for the benefit of 33,000 citizens. No other urban land reform initiative has matched the self-financing economic success of Letchworth. Though it has lost land through leasehold reform, Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation still holds £127m in assets generating reinvestment income of over £7m annually.

In the UK, Community Land Trusts (CLTs), housing co-operatives, co-housing and other forms of mutual ownership of energy and local food production are growing and community share issues are increasingly popular. Today social enterprises account for 15% of the small and mid-sized business market. By operating in silos, they cannot secure the transformative success of Letchworth.

Howard’s genius was to provide land as the shared platform for diverse mutual solutions to flourish collaboratively. The Co-operatives UK Commons Sense report of the first Letchworth debate argues for a co-operative place-making solution to become a common campaign in 2015. But why?

Unearned windfall gains in land value commonly arise from public policy investment decisions. The ability of a new garden city or town or regeneration district within existing cities to become self-financing can be understood by considering what happened in Southwark when taxpayers provided public investment of £3.5bn during the 1990s. Following the completion of the Jubilee Line, property values within 1,000 yards of each of the eleven new stations rose in value almost four-fold to £13bn. With no co-operative land society in place, this uplift was lost as free lunches to private landowners.

The Social Economy Alliance manifesto calls for land reform action. Garden cities are supported by all mainstream parties. The coalition has earmarked £2bn over six years to support work on garden cities. By adhering to the Letchworth ownership model, new garden cities could enable CLTs, housing co-operatives, community food and co-operative energy schemes to access land to expand and thrive.

Through public-social partnerships co-operative forms of housing and energy, including district heating and renewable energy have gone to scale. In Denmark, for example, co-operative and local authority partnerships are ubiquitous and have decentralised and democratised energy and housing since the 1980s. In Copenhagen, the entire urban power grid is jointly managed by a municipal utility and 22 district energy co-operatives. Similarly in Germany more than half of renewable energy is owned by local people democratically.

Notably the Wolfson first and second prizes for the best new garden city design were awarded respectively to Urbed and Shelter. This is indeed hopeful as they both have been active contributors to the Letchworth debates and advocates of the Howard model for tackling the elephant in the room.

Steve-Bendle-300x225How to housebuild co-operatively

By Steve Bendle, director of Community Land and Finance

We have another house price bubble, driven by shortage. Whereas in 1981 there were 5.6 million council and housing association homes, in 2011 there were 4 million. Meanwhile the UK population grew by 6 million. Price rises are also driven by the ready income and capital growth available from buy-to-let which drives the housing benefit bill ever upwards. The scale of these problems demands major change.

The present system enhances values for landowners and developers at the expense of the wider community:

  • planning designation may increase the value of land twenty-fold
  • the government puts redundant NHS hospitals or former Ministry of Defence sites on the open market. Developers aim to offer the most by minimising the proportion of affordable homes, infrastructure payments and avoiding workspace or employment provision.
  • government funds new transport infrastructure. It is a sure bet that values along the route will be greatly enhanced yet no attempt is made to capture it.

So developers and landowners make profits, while the public sector struggles to secure a contribution to infrastructure costs or to deliver affordable homes despite successive attempts to change the planning system.

Community–owned land and revolving co-operative

capital finance can be the platform for a wide range of ‘apps’

A better solution would be to secure public or community land ownership as illustrated by

  • Letchworth Garden City for which land was acquired in 1903. It has resisted privatizations and sell-offs and today the Heritage Trust owns £56m property, the rent from which is used for the benefit of the community.
  • Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) on London’s South Bank who were entrusted by the GLC in 1984 with a 13 acres site, sold below market price for CSCB to develop the land with community benefit not maximum value as the objective.
  • Community Land Trusts (CLTs). In many US cities, the centre of the town has many vacant lots as people and businesses move to the suburbs. Vermont City Council developed a policy of transferring this vacant property to a new community-led CLT, which developed them into rented and part ownership homes, shops, offices and restaurants, often with highly innovative ideas for uses. The increase in the value of the home over time is shared between the part-owner and the trust so that the homes stay affordable. In the UK there is also the beginnings of a CLT movement.

Control over land is the key component in common and should be a strong element in any new policy. We would advocate:

  • More garden cities and garden suburbs following the definition agreed in 1919: the whole of the land [is] in public ownership or held in trust for the community. Land for new garden cities should be assembled at its existing value and the rise in value that comes from the planning should be retained and held in trust. The affordable homes should remain affordable by limiting the growth in owner’s share of value, as CLTs do in the USA. And the land for commercial development should be leased to provide return for the investor but to retain the surplus value for the community
  • No new infrastructure without a mechanism to share costs with property owners who benefit through a Community Land Bank mechanism
  • Land already owned by the public sector used as a resource for creating communities and employment, not as an unwanted asset for sale
  • Communities enabled to learn how to take on and control developments that would fulfill community plans
  • Finance made available from community or publicly-owned regional banks as in the USA City-CLT partnership or the German KfW public bank which provides capital at 1% to local co-operative banks and municipal savings banks for local investment

To use a technology analogy, community–owned land and revolving co-operative capital finance are potentially the platform for a wide range of ‘apps’ including co-ops, community land trusts or co-operative land banks at the garden city scale. What these co-operative place-making social enterprises could deliver is not just housing but could include renewable energy, community food and agriculture, social care co-operatives, car share schemes and community transport.

Winston Churchill, writing in 1909, argued against the monopoly power of land ownership:

‘Roads are made, streets are made, railway services are improved, electric light turns night into day, electric trams glide swiftly to and fro, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is sensibly enhanced.’

One hundred years after Churchill’s insight and nearly a thousand years after William the Conqueror, concentrated land ownership in the hands of a few. It is time for a land ownership and spatial planning system which is fit for purpose.

_ABU0382, 0382We need a social economy

By Ed Mayo, chief executive of Co-operatives UK

The UK has a remarkable track record of social innovation and action in the economy, but one that rarely touches on mainstream economic policy. As a result, co-operatives and social enterprises, social investment and fair trade are all treated as solutions for when things go wrong, rather than the way to get them right.

For sure, from time to time, one part of this becomes a fad. It was social enterprises, then co-ops, now employee ownership. And while the sun shines, we see partial gains – not least the landmark new Co-operatives Act which came onto the statute books this year, the result of a promise by the prime minister at the start of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives in 2012. Even so, we remain a footnote within a wildly distorted contract, in which financial incentives and returns are assumed to explain and sustain economic activity.

It was out of a mixture therefore of hope and frustration that we formed the Social Economy Alliance last year – an open federation of catalysts and practitioners from the field of social entrepreneurs and social enterprise, co-operatives and charities through to the new cadre of social investors.

The idea of the social economy, of course, has a long pedigree, particularly in a European context, but our intention was not to look for new names to describe who we were but rather to paint a picture of what we believe the whole economy should be – a social economy.

In the right conditions, capital and labour, collaboration and competition,

society and economy work together to drive the growth in the social economy.

When we started working around this idea, we were clear that what we didn’t want was a flipchart programme conjured up by another think-tank – now common enough to fall like apples in a windfall. We started from the bedrock of our own practice as innovations in addressing the big challenges that the UK economy faces.

So we spent our first year developing our own manifesto to put to the political parties, working through an intensive and deliberative process to test what we could learn for the UK economy more widely from our own practice and innovation.

The first theme that emerged was that the frameworks that govern the mix of social businesses already trading in the economy add costs rather than encouraging pro-social models of ownership and enterprise. From a perspective of genuine economic progress, we could see the potential for a new approach to land ownership, finance and infrastructure that give citizens and communities a real ownership stake in action to renew our crumbling social and economic infrastructure.

The second theme, building on the work that led to the social value act, was the opportunity for a smarter state, that uses its own buying power to create social value, delivering greater returns for taxpayers’ money while improving the business environment.

The third theme was about encouraging the social behaviour of business more widely, enabling enterprises to make a fair contribution when it comes to tax, wages and environmental stress and to turn social value into competitive advantage.

For each of these, we found a wealth of social economy entrepreneurs and teams trying to do just that, even if they are often swimming against the tide of conventional thinking – such as Co-operative Energy, Belu Water or the leadership at Knowsley Council, who encourage local labour in every contract they can.

This led us to a Social Economy Alliance that we launched to politicians in September, with advertising raised through crowd-funding, up for three weeks in Westminster underground station and in social businesses across the UK. Among the 25 calls we are making include:

  • A royal commission on land reform
  • A levy on unused commercial properties and rates discount on new use to beat the blight of empty properties
  • Community ownership to be included at feasibility stage as a percentage of all large infrastructure projects
  • Activity co-operatives, allowing people out of work to pool benefits and taper their income to create their own team-based enterprises
  • Entrepreneur ‘L’ plates, to simplify and encourage the path to entrepreneurship.

What emerges is neither left nor right, in a traditional sense. In the right conditions, capital and labour, collaboration and competition, society and economy work together to drive the growth in the social economy.

The social economy is creating wealth, jobs and social capital right now. We are not content to solve the problems thrown up by today’s reckless, financialised economy, because we see solutions and the chance for a more sustainable and fair economy, spreading prosperity. What we will do is to commit to be a partner and a champion for a new model of wealth creation.

  • The Social Economy Alliance Manifesto can be found here.

joostPlaces as platforms for civic collaboration

By Joost Beunderman, co-founder of Civic Systems Lab

Over the past few years, we have come to an increasing understanding of how of a new type of organisational logic is changing the way we can do things right across society.

Platform thinking is changing everything. While many are now familiar with smartphones as a platform for apps or with online crowdfunding platforms, the potential of platform thinking goes much further – for example, into the heart what we used to call ‘regeneration.’

What characterises a lot of successful new initiatives (some of which we documented a few years in our Compendium for the Civic Economy) is how they manage to invite wide and open-ended participation, leading to often unpredictable multiple outcomes.

This is a fundamental shift from the current discourse on co-production or volunteering. It transcends them, making people true collaborators and supporting them in contributing what they want, rather than just executing tasks set by others.

To understand this shift, just look at that winter, a few years back now, of the suddenly abundant snowfall. Rather than sending their own teams in to clear the snow, many councils handed out snow shovels so that ‘citizens’ could ‘co-produce’ this outcome. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s acknowledge that it’s a rather limited perspective: people were not really addressed as citizens with all their talents, creativity and drive, but really just as spare (and free) hands to clear up a mess.

Could development trusts be more powerful if they saw

themselves as platforms? Could embattled council library services run with this logic?

Contrast that with the Open Works in Lambeth. Rather than getting people involved in a pre-defined outcome, it is a open platform that invites, inspires, connects and practically supports local people’s initiatives to change the area. It does not ask them to produce a (Neighbourhood) Plan or to hit certain targets – instead addressing and unlocking their very unpredictable creativity on the assumption that trusting citizens to create new social value projects will ultimately change a local area for good.

It does so by connecting people to existing resources and each other, and also challenging people perhaps to think beyond their original idea to come up with projects that are even closer to people’s dreams of how they’d love to live. And in doing so it is miles removed from the traditional policy assumption that we know exactly what the problem is and that we just have to execute the solution we identified to resolve it.

As Sangeet Paul Choudary wrote earlier this year: there are three broad approaches that innovators tend to take to solve problems. Firstly, ‘The “stuff” approach: How can we create more stuff whenever a problem crops up?’ Clearly this has been the traditional welfare state and market approach.

Then: ‘The “optimisation” approach: How can we better distribute the stuff already created to minimise waste?’ Smarter, but still limited because it assumes that a lack of ‘stuff’ available (think hospital beds, or electricity, or care workers, or library funding) is the essential issue. Lots of people working in councils these days tell us they are stuck in this approach as they struggle to maintain the availability of the same amount of ‘stuff’ in the face of cutbacks, leading to efficiency drives that don’t tackle the source of need or unlock new ways of thinking.

Then, finally: ‘The “platform” approach: How can we redefine stuff and find new ways of solving the same problem?’ This is of course where things become more interesting. Many local energy co-operatives are redefining ‘stuff’ by focusing on energy reduction and decentralised generation as alternative to us all staying hooked on coal fired powered stations.

Rather than campaigning for more playgrounds, Rotterdam’s ‘Singeldingen’ project created a kiosk in a park as a base from which locals could organize an endless range of activities. Incredible Edible Todmorden started as open invitation to anyone to grow food anywhere in public spaces and has become an unexpected economic revitalisation engine which has already seen shop vacancies go down and more young people stay in town. And another Rotterdam project called Nieuwe Ateliers Charlois redefined the eternal affordable art studio question by recycling income into a seed fund for participants’ new projects, thus increasing their income rather than just offering cheaper rent. And so forth.

Rather than campaigning for more playgrounds, Rotterdam’s ‘Singeldingen’ project

created a kiosk in a park as a base from which locals could organize an endless range of activities.

Whether commercial or civic, platform organisations recognise and trust that unpredictable inputs from a wide range of people strengthen the whole. Apple relies on people creating apps, renewable co-ops need people to give them ingenious ideas for energy savings as well as money, and crowdfunding platforms get their traction not just from how much people invest but more importantly from what crazy-seeming ideas launch beautiful campaigns to rally people around their ideas. As long as contributors stick to a series of basic formats or protocols or purpose, the combinations and outcomes can be endless and the platform gains momentum with every new original contribution.

Could development trusts be more powerful if they saw themselves as platforms? Could embattled council library services run with this logic? Could outcomes-based commissioning be further revolutionised with this approach? Based on our growing experience we’d say yes.

As always, this requires culture change as well as a shift in investment. To maximise the energy of platforms, we need to change expectations and behaviours. If traditional services and products are about selling and allocating, marketing and managing, platform approaches depend on inviting, enabling people to ‘plug in’, setting the right culture and curating diverse inputs. Needless to say, there’s huge skill and sensitivity required behind these simple words.

For a simple analogy of how this can go wrong, take public space. When they work well, a thriving market or vibrant square or street are the ultimate platform: a shared infrastructure and fairly basic set of common rules and positive culture enables an unpredictable set of encounters, behaviours, ideas, moments. But the past two decades of heavy investment in public space have seen simplistic interpretations that generated the space but not the spirit of a public domain. Instead of sharing, we got commercially dominated areas beset with rules and tightly policed or unwelcoming to people to make it their own. Endless publications have been written about this – and the task to generate truly inviting platforms for participation in other domains is no less complex.

It’s important we get this right because, as Victor Pestoff at Stockholm’s Institute for Civil Society Studies noted: ‘We find traces of a “glass ceiling” for citizen participation in public services that limits citizens to playing a more passive role as service users.’

It is this glass ceiling that the current generation of civic entrepreneurs are already breaking through. But like always in the shift towards a more civic economy, their success depends on collaboration across the existing public, private and third sector too.

Derek Walker 1Co-operatives and local growth 

By Derek Walker, chief executive of the Wales Co-operative Centre

The Wales Co-operative Centre was set up by the TUC in 1982 to help ease the effects of large scale industrial decline in Wales. At the time the steel works that were driving much of the economy of south Wales were being scaled back. The mining communities that had provided the bedrock of the economic and cultural life of the area faced the prospect of extensive closures. There was a realisation that traditional large scale employers would no longer prop up the economy of Wales and that alternative solutions were needed.

In the subsequent years, the centre has worked across Wales to promote and develop co-operative approaches. In the nineties, we worked with 239 miners who contributed their redundancy money into a co-operative buyout of Tower Colliery, near Aberdare. This massive commitment from the miners resulted in an extra thirteen years of work and economic stability for their families and local communities.

Today, co-operatives are making an active contribution to economic growth in Wales. In 2012, Edwina Hart, Welsh government minister for economy, science and transport, set up a commission to make recommendations on developing the co-operative economy in Wales. The commission’s report was published earlier this year. It made twenty-four recommendations in support of co-operative education, business development, finance, land and assets, procurement, innovation and networks. The report focused on the benefits of multi-stakeholder and worker owned business models and called for integration of co-operative approaches into education and business curricula. Co-operatives are being taken very seriously in a modern Wales as a way to address the economic challenges our country faces.

Although there is a lot of political interest in Wales, the movement is primarily community-led.

In Cardigan, 4CG is a co-operative that has taken a very direct approach to town centre regeneration. 4CG was created as a result of community action against a supermarket which wanted to move into the town. Via a series of community share issues, the organisation has been able to buy land and buildings and offer cheap parking and facilities. It hosts a children’s centre, furniture recycling business, an eco-shop, a museum, peer-to-peer lending facilities and a funeral director.

Co-operatives are being considered increasingly by people and

communities as effective models for economic development and service provision

In north Wales, three social enterprises working in the recycling sector are working together in a new consortium business. Draig Tex collects recyclable textiles and exports them. This ensures that the profits from these activities are used to support the aims of the social enterprises in that area.

Sometimes the focus isn’t on new co-operatives, but on using co-operative approaches for sustaining existing businesses. Ebbw Vale-based PrimePac Solutions is a worker co-operative set up in 2005 after its parent business decided to withdraw operations from Wales. The Wales Co-operative Centre provided legal and business advice and helped the company access funding. The company is now worth several times the investment the employee-owners invested into setting it up.

Last year, the centre helped seven ex-employees of Remploy to set up a new business in Swansea. Accommodation Furniture Solutions is based at the old Remploy factory and supplies furniture to local authorities, social housing organisations and universities. In less than a year it has doubled its workforce and is providing good quality employment to a primarily disabled workforce.

We are investing considerable time and energy in developing co-operative housing. Co-operative housing is common in many European countries but is rare in Wales. The centre is working with government, housing associations and potential co-operative communities to develop models that work for people in Wales who do not want to rent their homes but cannot afford their first step onto the housing ladder.

A recent growth area in community co-operatives is in community energy. Several co-operatives have been set up to harness wind or hydro energy, power homes and businesses and raise money through the feed-in-tariff. In the Swansea Valleys, Egni is a co-operative that promotes the development of solar energy utilising community owned buildings in Wales. Its debut share issue was recently declared fully subscribed, allowing the organisation to install solar PV panels on four public buildings.

Snowdonia co-operative, Ynni Anafon Energy, is planning to build a 270kw hydroelectric plant on the River Anafon. They hope to raise £1.25m for the project via a share scheme and a bank loan. If the project is successful, the electricity generated will be sold to the grid and surpluses will be donated to a village charity.

In the years to come, co-operative development in Wales will include a growing number of businesses set up in response to public sector budget cuts and changes in the way services are delivered. Co-operative approaches empower both employees and service recipients, helping to deliver essential services effectively and efficiently.

The future of co-operative growth in Wales is looking positive. Co-operatives are the front of political thinking, but more importantly are being considered increasingly by people and communities as effective models for economic development and service provision.

martin-mugshotA new model for community investment

By Martin Large, chair of the Biodynamic Land Trust

Co-operative finance and social business are being reinvented with the spread of community buy-outs of farms, pubs and shops, and the rise of community renewable energy co-ops. More people are getting interested in investing in their own communities directly, rather than leaving their money in the banks. The personal finance sections of newspapers regularly carry articles about community co-op investment opportunities. I hope this article will help inspire you to try this out approach.

However, when Greg Pilley and I from Stroud Common Wealth worked with community-supported farms in 2005-7, the co-op movement had largely forgotten how to raise shares through Industrial and Provident Societies – now known as Community Benefit Societies (CBS).

So when we enabled, with young farmers Charlotte and Ben Hollins, the co-operative buy out of Fordhall Farm at Market Drayton in 2006, this was the only successful community share offer that year. Over 8000 members raised £800,000 to save Fordhall and create England’s first community-owned farm. We did this by registering the Fordhall Rules with Co-ops UK, and then getting ‘charity at law’ status with HRMC. Sounds simple now, but back in 2005 we had to re-invent co-operative methods that many had forgotten.

Fortunately, Co-ops UK then took the lead, with Jim Brown establishing the Community Shares Unit to resource and improve good practice in the emerging community benefit society sector, particularly for community share offers. With Sean Wealden of Wessex Reinvestment Trust registering CBS rules and advising, and Mark Simmon’s handbooks Simply Legal and Simply Governance, the sector is well resourced. It needs to be, as good practice is essential for building competence and trust, and as a proactive defence against potential poor practice and the resulting increase of regulation.

Barn raising’ for the common good is breaking out

all over Britain as people rediscover the co-op habit

So, why is the community benefit society structure important?

Firstly, John Stuart Mill as an MP designed the original rules to enable both initiative (industry) and community benefit (providence). He asked, ‘How do we enable both securing enduring community benefits, like housing, land and community facilities, whilst also enabling and enterprise (industrial)?’

Secondly, such bodies are protected and guided by people working with the seven co-operative values. Thirdly, some CBSs can be structured as enterprises with profit making that benefits members, as with community renewable energy co-ops and also as ‘charity at law’ bodies (registered with the FCA but exempt from the Charity Commission) for mutualising assets such as farm land into trusteeship bodies.

Building on the Fordhall Farm work, I have enabled the setting up of a variety of co-operative projects. Firstly, in Stroud, we set up Stroud Woodland Co-op as a CBS with 64 family members each investing £500 to buy a wood at five day’s notice, showing how communities can take rapid action to secure a common asset.

Secondly, a group of us have set up two renewable energy co-ops. Thirdly, I set up the Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) in 2011 for affordable farm access for young entrant farmers and communities. With gifts and community shares, we have bought land for Tablehurst Community Farm in Sussex.

Then the BDLT helped set up Stockwood Community Benefit Society (SCBS) in 2013, to save the 150 acre Rush Farm, near Redditch, where the original Archers’ radio broadcasts were made from. We raised over £600,000 in community shares from 120 members, and with  loans SCBS bought the farm for £2.3m in May 2014. Whereas most farms cannot support high enough land rentals to pay interest on shares, SCBS is unique in having a business park rental income stream that allows a 5% interest on community shares.

However, the best way to learn how community co-op shares and community benefits societies work is to join one. You can then experience how this approach can work for you, your enterprise and community. So, you are invited to consider investing in community shares to secure Huxham’s Cross Farm, Dartington, South Devon with the BDLT. We are currently raising a £326,000 community share offer. Farm benefits will include apprenticeships, volunteering, training courses, low carbon farming, children’s facilities for well being programmes, a Forest School and growing good food.

Farmer Marina O’Connell will develop a productive, mixed farm. She will regenerate the depleted ‘agri-desert’ soils using the latest biodynamic, permaculture and organic methods. Wildlife will be protected and the land transformed into a fertile educational market garden, orchard and family farm that is community connected. This will become a beacon research, learning and demonstration farm – a beautiful, life-giving oasis in an agri-desert offering an alternative model for local food security.

Such ‘barn raising’ for the common good is breaking out all over Britain as people rediscover the co-op habit, and use the community benefit society co-op model for people to people direct investment for social, business and enduring community benefits.




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