A Personal View of Co-operative Development in Wales

From Glenn Bowen, Director of Enterprise at Wales Co-operative Centre

2017 is a milestone for me as it marks 20 years of involvement in the co-operative movement in Wales. I joined the Wales Co-operative Centre as a development worker in January 1997, fresh out of university with my business degree. I had gone through all of my formal education, being involved in young enterprise initiatives and doing a business degree, without ever being taught about co-operatives or social enterprises.

In 1997 I was employed by the Centre to help ex-mining communities in Wales develop community businesses. As a Rhondda boy, this was a challenge that I jumped at. I was lucky to be surrounded by experienced colleagues who were developing pure co-operative models, including Norman Watson who was working with Tower Colliery, a workers’ co-operative that had bought the last deep coalmine in Wales from the British Government. Other colleagues were drawing on learning from Ireland to develop the emerging Welsh credit union movement.

The election of the Labour government in 1997 gave us a new impetus as terms such as the ‘third way’, ‘social enterprise’ and ‘social economy’ gained traction. Despite the new language, many of these businesses still enshrined principles of democratic control and social purpose. Their co-operative structures remained integral, even when they chose to define themselves as a community business or social enterprise.

In the last five years, policy makers have rediscovered co-operative models and the value that ownership and engagement can bring. In July 2012, the Welsh Government Minister for Economy, Science and Transport announced that she was establishing a Commission to make recommendations on growing and developing the co-operative economy in Wales. This announcement during the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives galvanised the movement in Wales and pushed co-operatives up the political agenda.

The Commission made recommendations that cut across Government, but two areas of co-operation that have grown most significantly are housing and social care.

Historically in Wales we have not had a co-operative housing sector, with most social housing being delivered by local authorities and housing associations. The movement was kick-started when several local authorities transferred their housing stock (as a result of tenant ballots), to housing associations and mutual around 2010. Since 2012 we have worked with Welsh Government and housing stakeholders to promote the co-operative housing model. Four new co-operative housing schemes have been completed, three others are nearing completion and a further six are at various stages of development.

One of the key lessons in this development has been the importance of bringing people from the housing movement together to promote co-operation, including Welsh Government, Chartered Institute for Housing (CIH), Community Housing Cymru (CHC), the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) as well as a number of housing associations. It has been heartening to see people who started this journey with a degree of scepticism become vocal co-operators and true co-operative pioneers in the field of housing.

In terms of social care, the Social Services and Well Being Act has been an important piece of legislation in Wales. It has redesigned how we provide social services, putting the citizen at the heart of designing services and promoting the idea of prevention and well-being. Section 16 of the Act puts a duty on local authorities in Wales to link with co-ops, mutuals and the third sector when planning and designing services. As a result of the Act, we now have a specific project called ‘Care to Co-operate’ to help people set up co-operatives to provide their own support needs.

Another recommendation of the Commission was that there should be specific support available for co-operatives and mutuals. In 2015 the Wales Co-operative Centre launched ‘Social Business Wales’, an £11.2m development programme funded by Welsh Government and the European Regional Development Fund. This project has allowed us to support co-operatives and social businesses, and promote employee ownership to exiting business owners looking at their succession planning.

So what will the next 20 years bring? With Brexit upon us, we don’t know how national policy will develop and how this will affect the movement. But we have a five year programme of government in Wales that is supportive of co-operatives and mutuals.

A key policy driver is the ‘Better Jobs Closer to Home’ agenda, developed by the Wales TUC, which has strongly influenced the programme for government. This agenda makes clear that although City Regions and the Cardiff City Deal are important to the overall economic development of Wales, issues faced by communities furthest away from economic growth sectors – post-industrial communities in the South Wales Valleys, our rural communities, coastal communities and inner city areas – need to be addressed. ‘Better Jobs Closer to Home’ recommends a more interventionist economic policy to stimulate and create employment in areas where the private sector is less active. I hope that this policy translates into an enabling environment for locally developed and owned co-operatives providing quality employment close to where people live.

We cannot be sure what the future holds, but as I start my 20th year in the movement I offer two key lessons for co-op development officers and co-operators.

Firstly, we need to promote Principle 6, co-operation amongst co-operatives. But we need to go further and promote the idea that if we help set up a co-op, then that co-op has a duty to help set up another. This will help increase economic opportunity for our communities and grow the movement substantially.

Secondly, we must shout louder about the life changing potential of the co-operative model. It empowers and educates people to create opportunities for the many and not the few. It encourages self-help and reciprocity and is based on the belief that we are stronger when we come together than when we act alone.

1 Comment

  • david.palmer@wales.coop'

    I look forward to the next 20 years with Glenn building more co-operative homes and learning about International Co-op Principle 5 at http://www.cooperatives-wales.coop/ – Glenn Bowen from the Wales Co-operative Centre showed how practical co-operative education is a prerequisite for the growing co-operative housing sector. Self reliance, skills in governance, business and long term planning and ‘learning to inspire’ presented a challenge for the emerging co-operative housing sector but a challenge which would pay long term dividends.

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