Co-operation still matters

Posted on December 17, 2013

The meltdown of the Co-operative Bank after its unwise merger with the Britannia Building Society, its botched take-over of part of Lloyds Bank (Project Verde) and the shenannigans of its former Chairman the Revd Paul Flowers, have been something of a field day for the enemies of cooperation and mutuality. The reputational damage both to the retail co-operative movement and to the idea that mutuality is in any way superior to its conventional capitalist rivals, has been incalculable. So it was in this gloomy context that I went to see a screening of ‘The Rochdale Pioneers’ a film made to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the Co-operative Group who until various hedge funds took control, owned the Bank. The film is a potted dramatisation of the very early days of the first Co-op store – in Rochdale, which opened on 21 December 1844 and it is a powerful reminder of why the Co-operative movement was established in the first place and why it is still important today. It is a tale of solidarity, vision, hard work, the courage to face down powerful opposition and the importance of unadulterated food sold at fair prices to people who have very little. All of this is relevant today, even though the circumstances have changed.

While Britain is the home of co-operation, the scale of co-operatives worldwide is often forgotten, with over one billion members and a combined turnover far larger than even the largest multi-nationals. The range, diversity, and scale of co-operatives is remarkable and their contribution to the quality of people’s lives should not be underestimated. In the context of the ‘liveability’ of urban space, even the familiar co-op store has a significant role. Its sheer ubiquity is its unique selling point. As people re-shape their lives in urban areas – it is surely a sign of something significant going on when he average car driver in the USA drove almost 1,000 miles less in 2012 than in 2008 – the availability of small stores locally is to be applauded. The trend away from large out of town retail developments and back towards local centres has been marked in recent years in the UK, as rising fuel prices and the availability of ‘shop and drop’ internet shopping has discouraged people from lengthy shopping trips.

Reinforcing that new spirit of urban resilience and a greening the city has been the emergence of a range of co-operative ventures which empower and engage communities, address economic disparities and lack of skills, tackle poverty, provide job opportunities and improve the urban environment. Car clubs, where members rent locally based vehicles for as little as 15 minutes, from social enterprises such as Co-Wheels which is now established in over 30 towns and cities in the UK, are a case in point. Less congestion, more street space, less car use. Childcare co-operatives, notably sponsored by MidCounties Co-op and now one of the largest child care providers in the country, are located in areas where they afford opportunities for both adults in a family to work, learn or train. Local food producers such as Cultivate which takes its and fellow local producers produce to school gates, rail stations and pub car parks in its ‘veg van’ are co-operative ventures which in a multiplicity of ways are greening the city and providing educational, health and job opportunities. City farms and community gardens are often transforming locations which were urban wastelands and the venues for ‘dark play’ (drug dealing, prostitution alcohol abuse etc) or areas where local authorities had unlettable property. FarmShop in Dalston east London, or Whirlow City Farm in Sheffield exemplify the innovation and commitment of such projects. Community energy projects are another prime example of the way co-operation community capacity building and environmental sustainability are working in a virtuous circle. Hydro projects from Scotland to Devon, wind and solar farms, are springing up across the country and are addressing the legitimate concerns of local people about noise, impact, scale and visual intrusion, by engaging them in the design, planning, financing and ownership of the developments. Indeed Westmill Solar Co-op on the Oxfordshire/ Wiltshire border is the largest community owned solar park in the world. The internationalism of the co-operative movement is one of its strengths too. The concept of ‘fair trade’ was invented by co-operators and although it certainly isn’t confined to co-operative ventures, its spirit is one of an engagement between producers and consumers based on mutual respect and fair dealing that the pioneers in Rochdale would have certainly recognised.

Right now, as mutuality takes more of a bashing in the media than it has done for decades, this culture is worth remembering and cherishing. Without it we would be a much poorer and meaner society and one in which the process of making places liveable would be a lot more challenging for anyone in the planning profession.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 edition of Town and Country Planning