Interesting news comes through from Southampton, where the very long-established radical bookshop October Books has just raised the funding to purchase an old branch of NatWest, enabling it to move to larger premises and create extra space for community activities. The purchase has come about following a very successful campaign to find almost half a million pounds, which has included community loan stock, crowd funding, personal loans and gifts, and a loan from Co-operative & Community Finance (whose press release has alerted me to the story).
October Books was for many years run as a workers’ co-op but in the past two years has restructured, with committed customers who are prepared to do some volunteering also able to become members of the co-op. (Thank you to Martin Meteyard who has sent me some more details about the membership arrangements).
You can access the CCF press release here, but a rather more unusual way of hearing how the bookshop ‘bought the bank’ is told in song form by singer-songwriter Jaquie Daniels here.
There is some very painful news from Hastings, where the community benefit society running Hastings Pier was forced some months ago to go into Administration. Funds raised through the high-profile community share issue were lost.
That’s bad enough, but what’s really upsetting is what has just happened now. The community dusted itself down, rallied round, used crowdfunding, and came up with a very strong rescue package for the pier. New hope for a really good end result, you’d think. Yet what has transpired is that the Administrator has disregarded the community’s rescue proposal and has made a deal to dispose of the business to an entirely commercial operator. Administrators can, of course, do this.
I would strongly encourage you to read the moving blog which Jess Steele from Hastings has just posted. What I think is particularly important is Jess’s comments about the need for a different process of Administration for community benefit societies. As she says, “It is wrong to use a commercial administration process for a civic/community asset, applying private property sector ‘solutions’ to a civic problem that the community is capable and willing to solve for itself given half a chance.”
She goes on to propose a Community Administration Act, for use where a community asset is at stake. Supportive backbench MPs are being sought to try to bring this forward.
Here’s her final thought: “The two Battles for Hastings Pier (2006-13 and 2017-18) stand in deadly stark contrast to each other. In one a very active community was eventually empowered by public funds to achieve the renovation of a derelict structure. In the other, the fully-restored asset was removed secretly from 5,000 shareholder-owners and then subjected to a commercial process that led, unfathomably, to where we are now.”
The Co-operative Group has now sent out AGM and ballot papers to those of its members who are eligible to vote.
The ballot paper includes the usual motion to approve the Directors’ Remuneration Report and also an additional motion to ‘approve a change in the Executive Remuneration Policy’. However, the Group does not make it easy to know what precisely these mean.
To get the details you have to go online to read the Annual Report. It’s worth a look. For convenience I am giving the link here.
Executive pay can be, as the Remuneration Report itself says, an emotive topic and it would be utopian to imagine that the Group could necessarily practise the wage equality successfully operated at Suma Wholefoods. The Group says that it aims to set executive salaries and bonuses at the middle of the going market rate, although this is what a lot of companies say and it’s by no means always easy to know quite what this means in practice. The motion to make a change to the Executive Remuneration Policy actually refers to a proposal to increase the CEO’s bonus arrangements while keeping his base salary unchanged.
One thing did strike me from the report. The ratio between the highest and lowest paid employees of the Group is 1:48 on base pay alone, and 1:96 when bonuses are taken into account. The Group did some recent separate research on gender pay, which found that women’s pay is on average (mean average) 18.9% below that of men. This report is also not easy to find, so to help you here’s the relevant link.
Back to the AGM. There’s also a motion asking members to approve a rule change. Again, I feel the Group should have offered more readily accessible information before asking members to vote. Having looked at the details I can advise you that the main substantive change is to increase the maximum term non-executive directors can serve from six to nine years. I’m personally not convinced by this proposal and in the absence of any clear reasoning I am not at all sure I will be voting in favour.
There are two comments to my post on Saturday on the Phone Co-op AGM which (because of the way WordPress tucks them away in the left hand margin) you may miss.
The first is from Amanda Davis, who has had problems leaving a comment due to the adverts which WordPress imposes, which of course I have no control over. I have wondered for some time whether the adverts are an issue, and whether I should get them removed (the only way to do this, of course, being to pay WP extra money myself). I already pay WP for the bibbyoncooperatives.org domain, and am loath to contribute too much more to a US multinational, but if people feel this is a problem or if the adverts (which I don’t see) are inappropriate or offensive, then please let me know.
The second comment is a very interesting one from Martin Meteyard, about the nature of members’ capital in the Phone Co-op and whether it should be treated as risk capital or simply some form of quasi- building society savings. Martin raises a highly significant question and one which as he says the recent debates at the Phone Co-op haven’t brought out. The question needs discussing.
The members of the Phone Co-op have overwhelmingly voted to transfer engagements to Midcounties Co-op – or, to put it bluntly, to be taken over. It’s a move (which admittedly now has to be formally ratified at a second SGM) I personally think is the right decision. The SGM in Sheffield was well organised and good humoured. The main vote was 202 in favour and 17 against.
I took part remotely, using live streaming and an online voting facility. Well done to the Phone Co-op for making this possible. There were, it is true, technical glitches but they were overcome.
This was an interesting experience for me, the first time I have participated remotely at a co-op general meeting. It is, I think, much better if at all possible to attend an event like this in person – there’s a commitment involved which isn’t necessarily there is you’re sitting at home online at risk of all sorts of other distractions (I had to momentarily dip out of proceedings when a friend came round wanting to use my printer for an emergency printing job for his youth group…) There’s a need for some etiquette for online participants too. Some people (in usual social media style) were passing running comments (not always complimentary) as speakers were in mid-flow, and I’m not sure this is something which we should encourage.
But participating online did mean I could attend an AGM of a local coop I’m involved in at 11am this morning and still be enfranchised for the Phone Co-op meeting. So – good work.
Rootstock occupies its own special (and important) niche in the British coop world, taking in money from supportive investors and investing the capital in radical cooperative ventures, particularly housing coops. The Spring newsletter from Rootstock has just arrived through my letter box, and I see it’s also available online, here. Worth a peruse.
I can’t get to Sheffield on April 28th for the Special General Meeting of the Phone Co-op, but I have today registered to participate (and vote) at the event online. It’s commendable that the Phone Co-op makes this facility available (although I guess that you’d expect a telecoms business to be able to organise this, if anyone could).
The SGM is pretty significant. There’s a proposal on the table for the Phone Co-op to merge itself into Midcounties Co-operative, one of Britain’s regional independent coop societies. (The technical coop term is a ‘transfer of engagements’).
Midcounties has a deserved reputation both for its commitment to cooperation and member democracy and for running an effective business. As well as its retail stores in a large chunk of the south Midlands and Welsh borders, Midcounties also runs the Co-operative Energy subsidiary as well as a national network of childcare nurseries. It’s demonstrated, I think, that coops can be coops but also business-savvy when necessary.
I’ve written in the past of the importance of the Phone Co-op, Britain’s only significant independent consumer coop of the past twenty years. I’m afraid, though, that I am not convinced that the current Board’s quite risky business strategy for the coming years – if the Phone Co-op was to continue alone – will keep the business viable. I see that the Board is itself arguing for support of the Midcounties proposal.
So my view is that Midcounties will be a very good fit for the Phone Co-op. (In fact, you could go so far as to argue that Phone Co-op members are fortunate that Midcounties has been prepared to get involved.) We’ll see what member democracy decides in less than two weeks.
I’m interested in co-operative solutions (of all kinds) to Britain’s housing crisis and try in my own neighbourhood to help by being a trustee of our local Community Land Trust.
Britain is behind other countries. Here’s a moving video on self-build housing co-operatives in Uruguay, the link to which has arrived in my email account by a roundabout route. Let me pass on the link.
I have a series of opened envelopes on my desk in front of me, all from building societies telling me that it’s time to cast my votes to approve their accounts, approve the directors’ remuneration and elect my directors.
It’s pretty frustrating. I am pleased that we still have mutually owned building societies after the demutualisation madness twenty years ago. I support the idea of the societies being member-owned. I want to use my votes.
And yet democracy is not on the agenda. Not one of the building societies offers me a contested election for the board. The days when there were candidates for building society boards – particularly at the Nationwide – who were unendorsed by the existing board (and who were generally put up by the grassroots Building Societies Members Association) have passed. The BSMA now seems a very small little affair, unfortunately.
Of course, building societies are complex financial institutions and we need competent directors. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only suitable board members are those initiated into the magic circle of non-exec directorships and who hold accountancy qualifications or have spent their lives in banking or finance. It’s frustrating how few directors mention in their election addresses that they support mutuality, for example.
On the other hand, my relationship with the societies of which I am a member is also pretty much solely a transactional one. Although I do try to save with some of the smaller societies, I am fickle in my favours, tending to look above all at the interest rates being paid and nothing much else.
So I will vote, but I will vote without enthusiasm. And I will vote will no clear sense of how mutual organisations such as building societies can at this late stage in their development ever really be once again genuinely member-owned and member-responsive.
I said in my last blog that I wanted to return to the question of what the British co-op movement (and, hopefully, a future co-operatively-minded Labour government) can learn from recent developments in France, where workers’ coops (SCOPs: Sociétés coopératives et participatives) have been growing in numbers in recent years.
There are currently around 2300 SCOPs. They include start-ups, employee buy-outs of existing companies (for example, when the owner wants to sell up), and employee rescues of failing businesses (always the hardest option of the three). In the last category, I mentioned here the worker-led rescue of the daily Nice-Matin newspaper chain at the time the co-op was being established. I’ve also mentioned several times the Sea France ferry co-op, now unfortunately no longer trading.
I got talking to Eleonore Perrin Massebiaux at the Ways Forward conference in Manchester last month, and afterwards she kindly gave me the link to a recent article she’s written which provides a very good introduction to what is happening n France. Elly also sent me a link to a useful publication Beyond the Crisis from the European worker co-op federation CECOP, which somehow I missed when it came out a few years ago. CECOP’s report gives detailed information on what’s happening in France, Spain and Italy. (The version online claims to be a draft, but since no final text appears to have been published we won’t worry too much about that).