Cooperative housing past and present

Something of a follow-up to my last blog about Community Land Trusts.

Britain, unlike other countries, has a relatively small cooperative housing sector, although there are signs that this may be changing. It’s good to see, for example, the growing interest in cohousing solutions (communities run by residents who have their own private homes but also share facilities and resources held collectively). I have recently been able to visit two very inspiring cohousing projects, LILAC in Leeds and Lancaster Cohousing, beside the river Lune in Lancashire.

It’s encouraging, too, that students in a number of cities are starting to explore the idea of student-run housing cooperatives. The Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative is a good example.

There is in fact a long, and forgotten, story of cooperative housing in Britain which I began to uncover when I was researching my recent book on early productive cooperatives. (There were cross-overs between the cooperative I was particularly researching and the so-called ‘tenant cooperative’ movement as well as the early Garden City movement).

Nineteenth century cooperative societies engaged quite actively in house-building (partly because many were acting as informal local savings banks for their members and had more capital than they knew what to do with). The tell-tale signs of their activity are still there: streets (particularly in northern England) with names such as ‘Co-operative’ or ‘Unity’, or named after early cooperative pioneers such as (George Jacob) Holyoake, (Edward Vansittart) Neale or (JTW) Mitchell.

By 1907, when at the request of the Co-operative Union around 400 societies reported on their housing initiatives, they had between them lent £6.5m in mortgage loans to members with which 32,600 houses had been bought, had themselves directly spent £1.2m on building over 5,500 houses which were then sold, and had also spent approaching two million pounds on building 8,530 houses which they were renting out.

But as well as all this activity, there were also the ‘tenant cooperatives’ or co-partnerships, in places such as Letchworth, Ealing, Sevenoaks, Bournville and Manchester. Arguably the tenant cooperatives were the direct antecedents of today’s housing coops and their story deserves to be known. The best account I have come across is the paper from Johnston Birchall, Co-partnership housing and the garden city movement, published in the journal Planning Perspectives in 1995. It is available (unfortunately at some expense from the journal publisher online) or for those with access can be obtained through university libraries. I’d like to see it much better known.

The DIY community approach to getting the housing we need

I have a lunchtime meeting today, talking informally to other people who live locally about our neighbourhood’s Community Land Trust.

Because, yes, I do have a life away from my professional commitments and one of the things I’m engaged with at the moment in a voluntary capacity is our CLT, set up last year as a charitable community benefit society with a board of trustees elected by our fifty or so members. (Community Land Trusts are rapidly growing in the UK and all the details are on the national CLT website. They are “local organisations set up and run by ordinary people to develop and manage homes as well as other assets important to that community”).

Our own focus is both on the provision of affordable rented housing (basically, trying to fill the gaps in housing need which the commercial market is not meeting) and on holding land and property in perpetuity on behalf of our community. We have recently been gifted ownership of a local community centre, where we are working with another local charity which actually manages the centre. We are also looking at two or three housing projects, one focused on older people’s bungalows and one on a potential cohousing solution for local young people.

Community initiatives like this take time and patience. But it seems to be a necessary part of life today, if we are to have inclusive communities where everyone whatever their age or income can find somewhere to live.

S-l-o-w democracy

My attention has been drawn to the idea of ‘slow democracy’ which is being discussed in the US, slow democracy being an approach which “encourages us to govern ourselves locally with processes that are inclusive, deliberative and citizen powered”.

This sounds like something which cooperatives – and the broader community movement – might want to pick up. Details at this website.

Bibby says: read this!

I want to blog today about what I consider the most important publication to have come from within the cooperative movement so far this century. I think every coop in the country should have a copy, readily available to be consulted (and debated). However, unless you were at the International Co-operative Alliance’s recent conference in Turkey, my strong suspicion is that you may not yet have seen it or read it.

The publication comes from the ICA and is entitled Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles. In other words, its starting point are the seven agreed core international principles behind the cooperative concept. These principles help to bind together what (let’s be honest) can be a very heterogeneous movement. Encouragingly I have noted a trend in recent years for British coops (particularly workers’ coops) increasingly to make reference to them.

The principles were last agreed in 1995, at what was the centenary conference of the ICA held in Manchester. The 1995 iteration followed two earlier versions, agreed by the ICA in 1937 and 1966.  But all three statements of cooperative principle were heavily influenced by early debates among cooperative pioneers, particularly the ‘Rochdale Principles’ developed in the British cooperative movement in the mid nineteenth century.

So what does the new publication offer us?  It offers us for the first time a comprehensive set of proposals for how the principles can and perhaps should be put into practice by cooperatives, in real life. As Pauline Green puts it in her foreword, the Guidance Notes “allow cooperatives themselves to fully grasp just what it means to be a cooperative in the world in which they are now working”.  It’s a tool.

Almost all the key ethical, managerial and governance issues facing cooperatives are covered here somewhere. Look carefully and you’ll find, for example, guidance on the importance of indivisibility of coop reserves (avast, you would-be demutualisers and carpet-baggers!), on member democracy and executive power, on executive pay (this last section should perhaps be stronger), on issues associated with equity capital, on enlightened treatment of employees and the importance of ILO core labour standards, on coop responsibilities in relation to environmental sustainability, and so much more.

What’s here is, of course, guidance not dictat – some coops will cheerfully disregard the lot, just as they disregard the seven principles at the moment. But it’s a collective expression from across the global coop movement of what is considered appropriate and best practice. That’s why I think it is important.

One irritation: the PDF on the ICA website is hard to cope with. Hard copy versions need to be acquired, and distributed widely.  As soon as possible, please.

The Rochdale legacy

I won’t be precisely in the cradle of the modern global cooperative movement tomorrow evening, but I will be very close to it. I’ll be in Whitworth, just north of Rochdale, giving a talk in the public library there on nineteenth century productive cooperatives based on my recent book All Our Own Work.

The talk is one of a regular series organised by the library manager in Whitworth. All credit to him and to his library service for the initiative. 7pm start, by the way, if you’re anywhere near.

A new boss at Nationwide

Britain’s most important member-owned business is, arguably, the Nationwide Building Society, one of the very few large building societies to have evaded the mania for demutualisation at the turn of the century. So we should be interested, I think, in who Nationwide has appointed as its new Chief Executive. He is, as today’s papers report, Joe Garner, who is currently running BT’s broadband and technical operation Openreach.

Garner’s background includes a stint as a senior executive at HSBC, as well as at Dixons Stores and Procter and Gamble. Does he understand mutuality? Well, perhaps we can take some comfort from the carefully prepared Nationwide press release where he is quoted as saying “The fact that as a mutual it is owned by its customers means that it is uniquely placed to lead and succeed in the next chapter of retail financial services in the UK. I look forward to listening and learning from members and employees alike…”

Do I need to remind you that Nationwide’s roots were in the cooperative movement (it was the Co-operative Permanent society before it became Nationwide) and for several years in the late twentieth century Nationwide’s member democracy was more active than that of most building societies, with member-nominated candidates even making it through the voting system on to the society’s Board of Directors a couple of times. More recently, Nationwide has settled down into filling vacant directorships through cooption and only subsequent member endorsement and it’s a long time since I remember a contested election. But at least Nationwide’s mutual rhetoric remains, which is more than can be said of some firms in the mutual sector.

Joe Garner is also a keen triathlete. This is irrelevant to how good he will be as a Chief Executive, but somehow gives me irrational encouragement.

Coop serves up Argentina’s favourite drink

Anyone with Argentinean friends will know the important role that mate plays in the country’s culture – mate, as in the infusion from the Yerba mate plant which you drink normally through a metal straw from a gourd. But Argentina is now becoming increasingly well known for something else: its pioneering use of ‘phoenix’ cooperatives, where firms which have gone under are rescued and brought back to life the cooperative way.

And now the two things come together. The latest newsletter from the global federation of productive cooperatives CICOPA reports that one of Argentina’s best-known brands of mate, la Hoja, has been turned into a worker-run cooperative. May they flourish.

CICOPA’s newsletter Work Together is always an interesting read and can be found via its website, www.cicopa.coop.

Monique Leroux is new ICA President

Monique Leroux, the CEO of the Québec-based financial cooperative Desjardins, has just been announced as the new President of the International Co-operative Alliance. Leroux was the inspiration between the two successful Cooperative Summits held in Québec in 2012 and 2014 (another is to be held next year), initiatives which have meant that she already has a high profile in the global cooperative movement. So the result (there were three other candidates, all men) wasn’t entirely unexpected.  (I’m pleased to say this outcome was predicted on this blog some time back!)

Monique Leroux takes over from Pauline Green, who deserves considerable credit for the way she has transformed the role of ICA President. What was once a position which meant little more than chairing ICA board meetings has been converted into an active leadership role.  Pauline Green has been tireless in criss-crossing the world to promote the cooperative business model, knitting together a sometimes disparate movement and giving the ICA a much more strategic sense of purpose. Pauline will be missed internationally, although British cooperators will welcome the chance to see her once more giving her energies to the national coop movement.

Monique, a francophone Québécoise who is also fluent in English, will be a different kind of President from Pauline but will I think continue to see the role as one of giving political leadership to the movement. She has valuable experience too in leading a powerful banking and insurance business.

The ICA conference in Turkey which is now just drawing to a close has also seen the publication of a number of valuable new documents, most notably the new Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles, which for the first time set out in detail what the seven international coop principles should mean in practice. I’ll try to return to this document in a future blog.

Caveat emptor at Co-operative Energy

I blogged back in August on the problems and the bad press which Co-operative Energy (part of the Midcounties Co-operative society) had encountered.  How are they doing now?

My own gas and electricity account is with Co-operative Energy and I had a long conversation with one of their staff this morning. I couldn’t fault her customer service: we were talking for probably twenty minutes or more, and the end result is that I am transferred on to a new tariff which should save me a shedload of money over the next twelve months. So well done Sharon for your efforts and I hope your bosses get to read this.

But there is a downside. Co-operative Energy started with just a single tariff, called appropriately enough after the Rochdale Pioneers. It was simple, and it was a welcome alternative to the traditional practice of energy suppliers who entice new customers with new tariffs and rip off loyal customers who don’t think to change from the tariffs they’re on.  But Co-operative Energy has now joined the rest of the industry by introducing new (and better value) tariffs, leaving those of us still loyal to the Pioneers account paying more than we need. I’m sorry that they felt the need to do this – and I also feel they didn’t adequately let their existing customers know of the change.

Midcounties has a good track record and is currently Co-operatives UK’s Co-op of the Year. To keep its reputation, its board and senior management need to keep a close grip on what is happening in its Energy subsidiary.

New edition of workers’ coop handbook

“Taking control of our own lives is an important step in the fight against the massive injustices and ecological devastation facing the world. Big companies and unaccountable governments may rule the planet, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Workers’ co-ops give us a chance to change a small but significant part of how things are.”

So reads the opening paragraph of How to set up a Workers’ Co-op, the highly practical handbook produced by Radical Routes.  The fourth edition of the guide, first produced twenty years ago, has just come out and is now available for purchase in hard-copy form for £7 or for downloading for nowt. In line with the handbook’s radical stance, the book is ‘anti-copyright’ – the idea is to encourage people to make use of the resources.

The workers’ coop movement may be small in Britain, but it is arguably the liveliest and most creative part of the UK coop scene. Radical Routes, and in particular its two member-coops Seeds for Change and Footprint whose members did the work of making the updates and editorial changes, deserve praise for this useful initiative.

You can download the handbook from http://www.radicalroutes.org.uk/publicdownloads/setupaworkerscoop-lowres.pdf