Can the Co-op Group’s farms remain cooperatively owned?

I’ve been on holiday for a week (it’s allowed occasionally), so you’ve failed to hear much from me on the recent Co-operative Group General Meeting and where we’ve got to with the Group’s proposed governance reforms.

But as you’ll have gathered I was at Manchester for the ‘unofficial’ Co-operative Renewal conference organised on May 16th by Jo Bird of Co-operative Business Consultants – and a very timely and valuable event it was too. One workshop which particularly caught my attention was the session looking at possible ways of keeping the Co-operative Group’s agricultural holdings in some form of cooperative ownership. The Group has put a large part of its farms portfolio up for sale, and the question posed at the workshop was whether these inevitably had to end up outside the coop movement.

I’d like to think that it would be possible to come up with cooperative solutions, although there are challenges: a very tight deadline and a declaration by the Group itself that it would prefer for financial reasons to sell all the farms in one fell swoop.

Nevertheless steps are being taken and meetings held, focused primarily on the possible creation of a new cooperative to acquire one particular farm, the Tillington cider orchard in Herefordshire. I’m peripherally involved in these moves, and think the concept a strong one – although ultimately it depends on the business case being robust enough to attract the necessary capital in the very limited time available.

The Group’s farms have been inherited from local cooperative societies’ old landholdings, and in some cases have been in the movement for over a hundred years. Nostalgia alone is not a good enough reason to ‘save’ them, of course, although it’s to say the least regrettable when coops dispose of long-held capital assets to fund revenue losses.  Martin Large of the Biodynamic Land Trust has a piece on the issue (“Our last chance to save Co-operative Farms”)  in the latest Co-operative News.

We’ll have to wait and see what materialises.



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