The future at the Phone Co-op

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.

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.

Co-operative Energy encounters turbulence

Midcounties, Britain’s 2015 cooperative of the year, has been enduring some hostile press coverage in the Guardian over customer service problems at its subsidiary Co-operative Energy.  A piece in the paper’s Money section earlier this month recounted a catalogue of unhappy customers complaining of unissued energy bills and problems with the new online portal. The Guardian suggested that customers might want to switch to a new supplier.

I can vouch that the online facility for customers logging meter readings has gone doolally. My own attempt to enter recent gas and electricity meter readings was rejected with a ‘computer say no’ type message. Actually, dear computer, I am in this instance right and you are wrong.

Energy companies are above all customer service companies, who stand or fall not by the quality of the gas or electricity they supply (as if), but on the quality of the service they offer. Ironically, Co-operative Energy has suffered from being too successful and running out of capacity. Nevertheless Midcounties does need to get over these current problems. And it might want to think about writing to all its customers soon with a sensibly drafted apology.

Getting energy the cooperative way

I mentioned in a blog a month or so ago the green electricity distribution coop EWS, based in the south German village of Schönau.

I want today to say a little more about energy cooperatives. Britain has, of course, a number of small-scale community-based cooperative generating enterprises, most notably the much-vaunted Baywind.  We also have the national energy distributor Co-operative Energy (a subsidiary of Midcounties Co-operative Society), which is trying to provide a more ethical alternative to the big six commercial suppliers and generally I think making a pretty good fist of it. But in general, Britain is a long way behind many other countries. In the US, for example, cooperatives provide power generation and transmission for 42 million people in 47 states. Or another example: in Argentina, coops provide 10% of national energy production.

The lack of engagement by coops in Britain may because of history: early in the development of local government, gas and electricity generation and supply were usually taken into municipal ownership, later to be switched into national state ownership.  But now power has been privatised, it’s clear that we need to be looking more closely at possible cooperative models.

The examples of the US and Argentina I mentioned above come from a recently published report from the International Labour Organization, Providing clean energy and energy access through cooperatives. It’s an interesting overview of what is happening worldwide with some useful case studies;  it’s available here.