CO-OPERATIVE FUTURES

Peter Couchman, Manager, Oxford & Swindon Co-Operative Society, on 16 November 2001.

This speaker concluded the short series of discussions on sustainability with a review of the work of `Co-operative Futures', a policy and development agency, of which he is Director. The agency advises localities on principles and practices of co-operative ideas, in order for them to develop policy and effective action. Recently, advice was offered at local `business breakfasts' and to the Regional Development Agency for the South-East.

The U.K. occupies only the 23rd position in an EU growth rate table, but our thinking on policy tends to remain traditional. Studies by the UN have shown the UK to be relatively backward in developing co-operative enterprises. Several researches show the success of co-operative enterprises such as the Mondragon developments in Spain, which directly involve over 45,000 people, excluding a number of associated international enterprises. Those who have responsibility for development policies are also unfamiliar with the significant percentages of co-operative bodies such as credit unions, health and care services, housing associations, etc. which work alongside traditional enterprises in the US and the multiplicity of such bodies in Italy. (There were two credit unions at work in the Twin Towers of New York at the time of the terrorist incidents, for example.)

In some leading agricultural countries, such as the US and in Scandinavia, farmers get around 40%of the selling price, whereas in co-operatives the figure reaches over 200% because their `value chain' embraces control of processing and marketing also as in such examples as `Ocean Spray', `Best Western' Hotels and `Interflora'.
Social enterprises, whose goal is not primarily profit, can also flourish. When enterprises are `mission-driven' beyond profit only, as with some restaurateurs, for example, whose prime concern is quality of food services, there are opportunities for co-operative developments. Rural communities could benefit from co-operative initiatives, but these are usually not considered.

The narrow range of enterprise models traditionally considered tends to inhibit growth. Approaches that encourage mutual concern by both producers and consumers of services promise better benefit. Separate worker and consumer co-operatives may fail, but those that are owned by both customers and staff (as at Mondragon) offer a better chance of success. Similarly, care services may be co-operatively beneficial. Local authority, staff and the public, for example, own the Greenwich Leisure Scheme, jointly.

Alternative models may well help those who regard their situations as unlikely to benefit from mainstream enterprises. While some `mainstream' enterprises develop common support services for efficiency, many co-operatives in various diverse forms may provide mutual support through `clustering' also, by virtue of their shared values. Once real rather than assumed needs are identified co-operative schemes can be devised which may well prove satisfactory.

A questioner suggested that a model which benefits workers at lower levels of responsibility to the disadvantage of management rewards will affect productivity, but the speaker asserted that for such schemes committed management is attainable, as at Mondragon, where differentials are narrow. When replying to a question on common support services for clusters of enterprises, he stressed a need for development agencies that support both new and existing enterprises. Differing aims and methods deliver differing results and various co-operative ventures certainly have failed, but inappropriate models can be superseded and mainstream approaches can be `strengthened' by co-operative enterprises. Questioned on the role of national authorities in the development of co-operative enterprises, the speaker noted that imposition often fails (as with the Jamaican sugar co-operative), since success requires that all involved must be engaged through shared values. Local authorities often show an `adversarial mindset' also, which requires time and effort to overcome. If co-operatives cluster to offer a wide range of services and involve everyone concerned as fully as possible, sustainable development alongside mainstream activities is both possible and desirable.

Geoffrey Catchpole