Some questions for the Phone Co-op

The ballot for elections to the Phone Co-op has just opened and – as usual, since this is a co-operative which has traditionally had strong member democracy – the election is not a foregone conclusion.  No shoo-in here:  there are seven candidates for two places.

But despite the Phone Co-op’s traditional democratic traditions I think there are questions which this year the Phone Co-op’s members need to ask their board when the AGM takes place in early February.

Some months back, members were advised that Vivian Woodell, who has been the co-op’s Chief Executive since the very beginning – and indeed whose idea the co-op was in the first place – is stepping down. For any business, the resignation of a key person is a moment of greater uncertainty and risk.  If the Phone Co-op were a plc and not a co-op, institutional investors would by now have been interrogating the Board in detail to find out exactly what the strategy for the future would be – to see if really the Board knew what it was doing.  In a co-op, those of us who are the members have to undertake this job ourselves.

In this context, therefore, I am just a little concerned to notice in the statement of one of the election candidates (a long-standing member of the Board) that the co-operative has a plan for growth which involves accepting “a slightly higher level of risk” in the future. Hmm. Utility businesses like phone providers probably do best when they are boring and cautious.

The news of Vivian Woodell stepping down, when it was given to members, was also couched in a somewhat curious way. We were advised that he was to take over the running of a new Foundation, established and funded by the Phone Co-op to promote co-operatives and co-operation – an excellent idea.  But since then all has gone very quiet. There has been no further news of this proposed Foundation or what its endowment will be.

So what has been happening internally in a co-operative which for many years has been a beacon of hope for the British co-operative movement?  Members need to know.  And in the meantime they probably need to choose their Board candidates carefully.

Community shares and the Unity Works collapse

It is enormously disappointing that Unity Works, the ambitious community co-operative which restored a prominent Victorian building in Wakefield (once home to the local retail co-operative society) to create a performance space and workspace, has failed.

Staff have lost their jobs and four hundred or so people who invested in the community share issue have lost their money.

I have held back from intruding into private grief but I do now, a few weeks on, want to make some comments.

Firstly, despite the Unity Works story, community share issues are still, clearly, a Good Thing.  Millions of pounds of investment capital have been raised for a wide range of community ventures, from locally run village shops and pubs to small-scale wind turbines. My own community land trust will be asking our local community for investment capital in a new affordable homes development next year when we launch our own community share issue, so I have a direct interest in this whole subject.

But we need to remember that community shares investment can be risky.  Some groups launch community share issues without adequate business plans or prospectuses, and some investors – carried away by commitment to the idea – fail to read the small print. The way forward here is to encourage best practice, and the community shares Standard Mark is an excellent initiative in this respect.

Secondly, we still need vision and enthusiasm.  I’m sorry that the vision behind the Unity Works project turned out not to be enough to create a sustainable business venture, but let’s not be daunted.  Let’s still be ambitious in what we try to achieve for our communities.