Why Co-Ops and Mutuals are the way forward

I have always thought that the UK economy had wrongly left the route of mutuals and co-ops too far behind in the blind rush towards capitalism. Here’s an interesting take on how we can regain our love of co-ops and mutuals written by Richard Warren for the Lib Dem Voice web site.

The Co-Op Museum in Toad Lane, Rochdale.

The Co-Op Museum in Toad Lane, Rochdale.

Lib Dems: The Co-operatives Party
By Richard Warren
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Theresa May’s plan to introduce worker directors onto company boards is a start, but she still has a long way to go to catch up with liberal thinking: Jo Grimond advocated worker-owned firms more than 50 years ago, and she hasn’t reached that point yet.

But the Lib Dems need to be more consistent and outspoken in support for worker-owned firms and other types of co-operatives, too. Over the decades, we’ve had the occasional burst of enthusiasm, such as when Nick Clegg called for the creation of a “John Lewis economy” in 2012, but it doesn’t appear to be integrated into our policy-making as it is over at the Co-operative Party. It ought to be for the following three reasons:

First, by supporting co-operatives we can create a coherent, credible, principled centre-left alternative to Corbynite state socialism that might help us find common ground with some Labour and Co-operative Party supporters. Significantly, the Co-operative Party is increasingly keen to distinguish itself from Labour now, and shares some of our views on key issues. As Labour MP and chairman of the Co-operative Party, Gareth Thomas, says, the co-operative movement is pro-business and pro-EU; so are we.

And, of course, by supporting co-operatives we reinforce our claim that we are now the party of business, not the Tories.

Second, mutuals work. Twice as many cooperatives survive their first five years than other types of businesses. What’s more, co-operatives are efficient providers of low rent homes and successfully develop human-scale regeneration projects.

Third, if the rise of the SNP and the Brexit referendum have told us one thing, it’s that people want more control over their lives. Looking to break-up the United Kingdom or have Britain reject collaborative working with our European neighbours are, of course, wholly destructive. Much better and more meaningful to give people a greater say over their affairs by looking for ways to extend mutualisation in more areas of our daily life: more housing co-operatives to help ease the housing shortage by providing low rent homes, and more businesses owned by their workers and even their customers to sell honestly-made goods and services at honest prices in an honest way. And, of course, to pay a decent salary.

Indeed, support for co-operatives could form part of a policy package aimed at giving people more power over their lives. Other components could include our continued support for proportional representation.

Co-operative ownership comes in many guises. Which is best, if any, is something to discuss. Companies don’t necessarily need to be wholly owned by their workers and customers: The Co-operative Party is arguing for carers, care recipients and their families to be represented on the boards of private companies providing social care, for example.

Co-operatives themselves are looking for their voices to be heard more loudly, and some feel both the Labour and Co-operative Parties have let them down in recent years. We would be doing them, ourselves and the country a service if we gave them a home in our party.

* Richard Warren is a journalist who is a member of the Liberal Democrats.

Rochdale Pioneers Museum

I lived in Rochdale as a lad in the 1960’s (went to Lower Place Primary School – lived on Weston Avenue) and had a vague memory of the Toad Lane Co-Op shop/museum so last week Sheila and I travelled over to Rochdale from our Merseyside home to have a look at it and learn more about the Rochdale Pioneers.

The Toad Lane Shop/Museum of Rochdale Pioneers with the Baum pub nextdoor

The Toad Lane Shop/Museum of Rochdale Pioneers with the Baum pub nextdoor

The staff were very friendly and took a real interest in us; we had a great time looking around. They even recommended a great real ale pub for us to get an evening meal and it was right next door!

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Rochdale has changed one hell of a lot since my childhood days but we enjoyed our visit and being a Liberal I am of course very supportive of Co-Op’s and mutuals. I would recommend a visit to the museum and indeed The Baum pub!

The photo is amongst my Flickr shots at:-

www.flickr.com/photos/86659476@N07/

What will be left of the public sector after this!

www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-33609662

Robert Peston has the story on the BBC web site – see link above

I am grateful to my old chum Roy Connell for bringing this item from the BBC web site to my attention. Having worked in the public sector all of my employed years I am, like Roy, rather worried about where this latest slash and burn policy will lead.

I have never doubted that the public sector once had its fair share of fat that could be trimmed but neither have I ever doubted that the public sector is vital for a functioning and progressive democracy. Anyone who thinks that the private sector can deliver all public services is living in cloud cuckoo land as the pressure to make money will always trump good services.

The missing link here for me is the lack of drive towards service delivery methods that really could work and potentially reduce costs as well. I refer to mutuals and co-operatives of course run by the people who work for them. I have banged on about them many times before but these days only Liberals and some real socialists still see them as a vital way forward as Tories and the new Red Tories lurch further towards privatisation.

Food hubs to drive rural food revolution but not where high grade agricultural land gets concreted over in Maghull, Lydiate, Formby, Southport!

This comes from a Government press release from the Dept. of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. All well and good but here in Sefton the Labour-run Borough Council is hell bent on concreting over our high grade agricultural land!

Government-backed Food Enterprise Zones (FEZ) will create more than 10,000 new jobs, support tourism and inject investment into rural communities across the country.

More than 10,000 new jobs are set to be added to the UK’s growing food and farming industry as a network of new food hubs takes shape across England with building work expected to begin early next year, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss announced yesterday.

The 17 government-backed Food Enterprise Zones (FEZs), stretching from Cumbria to Cornwall, will help drive up tourism, attract investment and add millions to our growing rural economy.

Championing celebrated British foods, including the Melton Mowbray pork pie, stilton cheese and Norfolk pork, the hubs have been awarded a share of £830,000 funding to help fast-track the expansion of food and farming businesses in the regions.

Speaking at the first meeting of all 17 FEZs, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said:

Our food and farming industry is an economic powerhouse, now worth more than £100 billion a year and employing one in eight people.

We want to build on that so food and farming becomes a top destination for high-flying graduates, is as prestigious as medicine, as fun and stimulating as the gaming industry and as cutting-edge as London’s Tech City.

Food Enterprise Zones will unleash food entrepreneurs, bringing together researchers, farmers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers so they can improve productivity and spark new ideas off each other all the way along the supply chain from farm to fork, from lab to lunch.

Plans for FEZs are well underway, including a new Artisanal Food Village in Cornwall, an agri-food park near Malton in North Yorkshire, and a cluster of local artisan food producers around the River Orwell in Suffolk.

In East Anglia three FEZs alone are set to create thousands of new jobs through expanding existing food businesses and developing new ones. These include Jimmy’s Farm, which will be part of the new Orwell Food Cluster in Babergh, along with the Suffolk Food Hall and the East of England Co-operative Society.

Fionagh and Richard Harding of Norton Barton Farm, one of the businesses set to benefit from a new Food Enterprise Zone in Cornwall, said:

“We are thrilled to have been chosen for a Food Enterprise Zone; it’s particularly good news for Bude and North Cornwall where employment is focused around tourism and agriculture. We hope that we will be able to encourage new entrants into the food industry.”

By making it easier for businesses to grow and bringing different parts of the food supply chain together, FEZs will ensure greater collaboration between rural businesses, kick-start local food economies and help people develop new skills.

Food and farming is the biggest manufacturing sector in Britain, worth more than cars and aerospace combined. In 2013 entrepreneurs set up 30,000 new food and drink businesses generating thousands of jobs in the sector, and the industry’s continual innovation is bringing 16,000 new products to the market each year—more than France and Germany combined and second only to the US.

Exports of UK food and drink are also booming with almost £19 billion worth shipped to 214 countries and territories around the world. Since 2010 the UK government has opened more than 600 new international markets supporting more businesses to sell their produce abroad.

Maghull – Pizza Shop to take over former off-licence shop?

A planning application has gone in to Sefton Council to convert a former off-licence premises in Maghull’s Liverpool Road North into a pizza shop and it is proving to be controversial with residents living close to the site.

One of the problems of this mixed shopping/residential area is the lack of parking. There are houses on both Liverpool Road North and Gordon Avenue that don’t have off-street park facilities and the parking outside of the shops is very limited indeed. The only car park is that of the Coach and Horses Pub and it has previously installed gates in an attempt to keep shop customers from taking up its parking spaces.

So with this background another shop that could bring with it the need to park cars for a while whilst orders are filled out may well make the parking problems even worse. Here is a photo of the shop unit concerned:-

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The unit is the one closest to the camera. Those with longish Maghull memories will recall that the whole shopping mall from Gordon Avenue (the entrance to which is in the foreground) to Granville Avenue (the road at the end of the mall furthest away from the camera) was once a Co-Op and the unit I am on about was its off-license. The Co-Op sadly closed in the mid 1980’s.

The other problem in front of these shops is that the pavement is also a parking area meaning that at times there can be dangerous interaction between pedestrians and vehicles. You certainly need to careful when walking past these shops as cars can come at you from any angle. This poorly maintained area (damaged wall and pot holes) is in private ownership.

Being a member of Sefton’s Planning Committee I will have to keep away from voting on this application because Jen lives close enough to it to have an interest in it and in such circumstances it would be wrong of me to participate in the decision making process.

Another association that I have with this row of shops goes back to 1985, the year I was first elected as a councillor in Maghull, as I fought off a planning application for a hot food take away (and won the fight) on behalf of local residents. 30 years on and a hot food take away is being proposed again. What goes around comes around they say.

Maghull Town Council – Accounting (or not) for its commercial activities

I have been asking questions about his at Maghull Council meetings recently as indeed has Labour Councillor Steve Kermode, to give him his due.

Separately we seem to have come to a similar point of view i.e. the Council’s commercial activities (using parks & gardens staff to bid for work outside of the Council) are not at all well documented in the reports/accounts made available to members of the Council.

Over the past couple of years Maghull TC has been engaging in commercial activities via its Parks and Gardens Maintenance staff, by using them to bid for commercial contracts to bring in another source of income for the Council. This is perfectly in order in that the Council has the right to do this as a consequence of the Coalition Government’s Localism Act. However, the problem is the commercial activities are hardly well documented.

This means for example that councillors can’t hold the Council to account because we don’t have the information to know if the commercial activities are working as we would wish them to. For example here are a few questions that come to mind:-

* Who does the Council have contracts with?
* How many contracts has the Council bid for?
* What resources is the Council putting into the contracts it holds and to bidding for other contracts?
* What are the consequences of the Council’s staff being engaged in outside contracts? By this I mean what are the staff not doing in the parks and gardens because their attentions are elsewhere?
* What profit/loss has the Council made on its commercial activities?
* Why is the Council not accounting for and reporting on its commercial activities to Council members?
* Were the watering problems encountered by the Maghull in Bloom volunteers last Summer in Maghull Square impacted on by Council staff being engaged on commercial contracts?
* Do the Council’s trading activities damage other competing local enterprises/businesses?

A briefing paper, prepared for Parish and Town Council on this matter, that I have read says ‘If a council wishes to trade it must set up a company or co-operative society and abide by company law’, I have not seen this taking place.

This same briefing paper also advises that ‘The council must resolve at a meeting that it meets the criteria for eligibility relating to the electoral mandate and relevant training of the clerk. The resolution can be passed at any meeting of the council but a further resolution must be passed at every subsequent “relevant annual meeting” for the council to be able to continue to exercise the power’

I have asked the Council twice now to account for its commercial activities in the way prescribed by national advice and in a way that is clear for members of the Council. I hope the message has hit home with our Labour rulers.

I particularly like the idea of the Council setting up a mutual/co-operative society to run its commercial activities.