While overwhelmed by party political promises at the dawn of this month’s local elections, an analysis by investigative news website The Detail found that in the last government programme, of 82 policy pledges ‘only 46 were achieved, 18 failed, and 18 were unclear or partially met’.
Unsurprisingly, some of the commitments that were not met were connected to social economy policies, and while £4m was awarded to 11 social enterprise hubs by the government in 2014, the most exciting co-operative developments in Northern Ireland took place outside of those hubs.
Down to Earth NI, Northern Ireland Community Energy, Boundary Brewing Co-operative, and Lacada Brewery Co-operative represent a wave of new co-operatives. These co-operatives have all received specialist support from Co-operative Alternatives and have raised finance by using community shares, an innovative and under-used tool which Co-operative Alternatives was able to promote and implement via the only investment readiness project in the region funded by the Building Change Trust.
The co-operatives were able to collectively raise more than £440,000 from around 1,400 members and finance their operations.
‘”Re-balancing the economy’ could mean so much more
and the social economy sector can play a substantial role in it”
Other community co-operatives such as the Raglan Group are renovating disused and derelict buildings to ensure that the community gains and benefit from public use.
This triggers an observation on the absence of housing co-operatives, co-housing and self-built community schemes in Northern Ireland and echoes one of the criticisms made to the past executive – that it is lacking in ambition and vision.
When the Department for Trade, Enterprise and Investment published the economic strategy – Priorities for Sustainable Growth and Prosperity – at the beginning of the last legislature, it adopted the priority ‘re-balancing the economy’. This was narrowly interpreted, and the private sector become the centre of economic development mostly because there was an assumption that re-enforcing the private sector and increasing its ‘export capability’, would create more wealth and equal opportunities across the region.
This strategy was accompanied by a commitment to reduce corporation tax that would also increased foreign direct investments and help create a Northern Ireland that is ‘ready for business’ – one of the major Invest NI campaigns. However, no long term re-balancing economy can be achieved if no investment is made available to tackle the infrastructure deficiencies of the region (energy, water etc) – the poignant example being the further collapse of the manufacturing industry due to high energy costs at the beginning of this year.
‘Re-balancing the economy’ could mean so much more and the social economy sector can play a substantial role in it. Co-operatives and community ownership sit in between public stewardship and private possession and, as the new wave of co-operatives have shown, unleash the potential for a group of committed individuals to pursue their vision, not for private gain but for collective advantage and despite public sector indifference.
Re-balancing the economy could also mean a fairer society, tackling inequalities and a new way to measure economic ‘growth’. Mutually supportive systems could replace competition.
In conclusion, with the restructuring to nine government departments now coming into place after the recent Assembly elections and the transfer of some responsibilities for the social economy sector to local councils, we need to ensure that the next set of economic and regeneration policies value the contribution of co-operatives by:
- Providing specialist support for setting up and growing member-owned organisations like co-operatives and community benefit societies. (A comparison study of the investments made by Big Lottery, trusts and local government departments of programmes promoting community shares in England and Wales, highlighted that Northern Ireland needs more investment in community enterprises and investment readiness programmes. The report Growing Community Shares is available at http://www.coopalternatives.coop/)
- Introducing a variety of co-operative models from housing to community energy, form creative co-operatives to workers co-operatives to inspire and foster diversity in the local economy;
- Creating a new fund for emerging and established co-operatives which addresses their finance needs in accordance with their development (so that it may start with a mix of loans and grants and then develop in equity investments for a mature stage) and so ensure that the local economy does include and supports the development of co-operatives.
Tiziana O’Hara is founder member of Cooperative Alternatives in Belfast