22. December 2014 · Comments Off on Happy Holidays From the Co-operanticators! · Categories: Uncategorized

It’s been a great year, with some hopeful & positive initiatives.  Here are some of our highlights:

See you at CBC’s Ways Forward III, Manchester in January &/or at Co-op Future’s Can Do Co-ops, Church Stretton in February

Thanks for all the support, work & fun we have had with our many friends, colleagues and collaborators & here’s to a successful, peaceful and co-operative 2015!

Wishing you a co-operative festive season identity.coop

Wishing you a co-operative festive season identity.coop

10. November 2014 · Comments Off on Housing co-op development in Wales · Categories: Uncategorized

A quick link to a blog by Dave Palmer from the Wales Co-op Centre about the progress of their Housing Co-op support programme. We are among their providers of support to start-up housing co-ops. http://walescooperative.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/developing-co-operative-housing-in-wales/

Our friend Brian Van Slyke, designer of Co-opoly has written an interesting response to our article on co-operative culture, focusing on co-operative culture and start-ups. We like it so much it is posted in its entirety here:

Getting People to the Cooperative Breakfast Table: Forging A Co-op Culture During the Start-Up Phase

The recent series on Cooperantics.coop about creating a cooperative culture was absolutely fascinating and an important contribution to the co-op movement. One particular quote stuck out to me, from a member of the Calverts Co-op:

Co-operative culture eats co-operative governance for breakfast

This is a critical statement that rings extremely true in my experience. At the same time, many people’s lives and environments have shaped them in a way that has not prepared them for the co-op experience in the slightest. The idea of a co-op culture is the anti-thesis of how they are used to working. In fact, as much as they might need to learn about co-ops and co-op culture, there’s probably a hefty amount of unlearning that needs to be done as well.

Recently, I was at a co-op workshop in Chicago with a range of folks from different cooperative backgrounds – people who were learning about the subject for the first time, co-op developers, and a few who’d been in the field for a long time. One attendee was part of a large, newly forming catering co-op going through some of the start-up phase pangs. This co-op is in the midst of getting off the ground and many of their members work other jobs. Most of these members are people who’ve never been in a co-op before, who have mostly worked low-wage jobs with a boss that simply tells them what to do. This, the co-op rep told us, was causing problems. He, as the person with the original idea for the catering co-op, had been made into the de facto point man–and sometimes he even felt like a boss. This wasn’t what he wanted, but he wasn’t sure how to change things. People weren’t showing up for member meetings. People would be assigned tasks that they would never follow up on. He’d ask people what they should do about certain issues, and only get blank stares in response. They’d just ask him to take on all the responsibilities and be the face of the business. He told the rest of the workshop attendees that this wasn’t feeling much like a co-op, and he wanted to know what he could do to change things.

This all brings up an intriguing question. If co-op culture eats co-op governance for breakfast, how do we get people to the breakfast table in the first place? (If I dare stretch the analogy that far…) Some people have no history, no exposure, no understanding of what co-ops and co-op culture is in the first place. So how do we even get them to commit to the idea? Well, the co-op cater’s question sparked a long and lengthy dialogue in the workshop. It involved people ranging from those were starting their own co-ops to folks who had been in the co-op movement for quite a time. And below were some of the key take-aways from that conversation.

Making Sure You Have The Right People

One of the primary concerns this co-op rep had was: do I have the right people? Is it better to bring in people who are excited about the co-op mission, or who need the co-op the most?

There was a long and lengthy conversation over this point. But one thing that everyone agreed on was that you can’t start a co-op with people who don’t want to start it. The start-up stage is one of the most vulnerable times for any cooperatives. If you don’t have people who aren’t committed, who aren’t going to do everything in their power to make it work… then you really have to take a good, long look at whether your co-op dream has the chance of becoming a reality.

One thing that often happens during situations like this is a natural self-selection process–those who are not fully committed to the struggles of forming a co-op will fall off the bandwagon. At some point, however, you do have to decide on a key question: who is going to work with me, through thick and thin, to make this thing happen? And you need to commit to those individuals. Then, down the road, when you’re more financially and institutionally stable, you can be intentional about building room for those people who need more encouragement to join in on the cooperative culture and process.

Buy-In: Not Just Purchasing a Share

Another key point that was brought up during our discussion was that a buy-in isn’t just about purchasing a share in the co-op. It’s also about showing people that their opinions matter and will have a real, lasting impact in the workplace. That’s something most people are not used to, and simply don’t know how to react when they’re presented with the opportunity for first time.

One co-op developer shared his experience of working with a group where there was one member who never spoke – no matter what. One day, when the co-op was facing a serious issue, the developer went around the room and asked everyone specifically to share their thoughts about how the co-op should take on the situation. That person who never said a word? He gave the most in-depth and best idea of anyone, and the co-op eventually put his suggestion into practice. When the developer asked this silent member why he had never spoken up before, the member said it was because no one had ever asked him, directly, what he thought. He wasn’t used to being able to speak up and wasn’t comfortable with just jumping into a conversation.

Since then, this once silent member has become one of the co-op’s most vocal. The workshop attendees reflected that this was likely because not only was he asked for his thoughts, but he also saw them put into action. That was his buy-in to the cooperative culture.

Member Meetings: Should they be paid time?

Another thought that came up was something that’s been recently debated within the worker co-op movement: should member meetings be paid time?

Paying for members’ meeting times is certainly more difficult for start-up co-ops and those who don’t have much financial reserves. However, if people aren’t committing to attending meetings, then this is something that could be used to push them over the edge to join. In addition, most worker co-ops do consider member meetings to be labor. As such, that time should be paid for, if possible. For those who are unused to the idea of a co-op culture, and of being expected to participate in decision making and planning, this could be the needed catalyst to get them to the table.

Build Member Meetings into Existing Work Times

Related to the above was the issue of finding a time for everyone to get together. The co-op rep who was sharing his concerns stated that others were often making excuses about why they couldn’t attend meetings. Family issues, weekend mornings aren’t good for them, weekend afternoons aren’t good for them, weekend evenings aren’t good for them, after work hours aren’t good for them, transportation time and costs, and so on and so forth.

One suggestion that was offered was the idea of finding time during the busy workday to, no matter what, have the member meetings – while everyone is already there. Of course, this can be difficult for those who are already so jammed with work and crunched for time. However, it might be necessary if that’s the only opportunity where everyone can be together. In addition, this approach would help build the understanding that meetings are an expected part of the co-op’s work. They’re not separate or optional. They’re part of being in the business.

Making Communal Expectations, Sticking to Them

The final big suggestion was to make and agree to communal expectations, and to have everyone sign off on them. These expectations could even be posted on the co-op’s walls, so that everyone would be reminded of them on a regular basis. In this way, no one could say, “I didn’t agree to that!” Because they literally have. In addition, this approach builds a common understanding of what is expected from each other – instead of assuming people will work off of unspoken agreements. Finally, the co-op would have to ensure that people are sticking to their agreements and expectations. If people have agreed to attend all meetings, save for emergencies, illness, etc., but they regular miss them – there should be a process for grievance and review. If someone misses three or four meetings in a year without appropriate excuses, maybe they should be asked if the co-op model is for them. Whatever it is, creating clear expectations, having everyone agree to them, and having them upheld is critical to creating a vibrant cooperative culture.

Obviously, not all of these ideas will work for all groups (many of them are worker co-op specific) and there are many other ideas to share. The above is more of a synthesis of a brainstorm that happened in Chicago. Still, these are good ideas that should be evaluated for each start up co-op. Building a co-op culture is critical for building a successful, thriving, democratic organization. At the same time, we need to find ways to bring many people to the table to begin with.

Brian Van Slyke is the founder of The Toolbox for Education and Social Action, a worker cooperative that creates and distributes educational resources for social and economic change, such as Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives

10. July 2014 · Comments Off on Co-operantics Conversations #6 Footprint Workers Co-operative · Categories: Uncategorized

Our (nearly) last Conversation is with the wonderfully energetic Cath Muller of Footprint Workers Co-operative based at Cornerstone Resource Centre, Chapeltown, Leeds. Cath is also a member of Co-operative Business Consultants. Footprint was set up in July 2000 to provide printing services to the highest possible ethical and environmental standards. They strive to make printing as affordable as possible and offer a wide range of quality depending on budget and the desired look and feel of the printed matter.

Hi Cath, thanks for finding the time to talk to us! My first question:

Q:               Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or policies & procedures – or culture within the membership?

 A:                Not a straightforward answer – the culture created the policies and the culture is the thing that keeps us checking the policies, otherwise we’d probably forget about them. The most powerful influence is practice and custom.

 Q:               How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

 A:                We’re a very small co-op and we all work part-time, so new recruits are usually right in at the deep end with taking responsibility and being part of decision-making. Our meetings are very informal, unfacilitated affairs, but there’s a lot of question-asking. We’ve also got a culture of trying to identify why things have gone wrong, including a fuck-ups spreadsheet, on which we enter details of our own mistakes and other people’s if they’re not in that day. We also commonly come up with ideas for how things could be better. We don’t vote on anything, just use informal consensus. The recruitment process itself is heavy on communicating the culture, including interviewing over lunch. We’re also proud of being a workers co-op and politics get discussed a lot, and I’m always on about co-op stuff, so there’s an explicit, constantly reinforced ethos. We’re also members of Radical Routes, so all members have to attend gatherings every so often and do Radical Routes work contribution.

 Q:               What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new recruits learn your culture?

 A:                You might think there’d be informal hierarchy issues, but I really don’t think there are, because we each do nearly all the tasks associated with the business, so there’s no hierarchy of knowledge in that way (or at least not for too long). Everyone’s got access to the cash-tin and the accounts software, everyone can update the manual, everyone can pick up everyone else on errors. It’s hard for me to judge, as I’ve never been a new recruit in the business!

 Q:               Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

 A:                Can’t think that we have!

 Q:               Do you use a member job description?

 A:                No – I think we might have written one once, but I don’t remember it being referred to, once someone’s in post. I think it’s the kind of thing that’s needed when people have more individual responsibility or there’s a clear division of labour. As it is, we know that whatever it is, we’re all responsible for it. If we were bigger we’d probably consider it, but at the moment it’s not necessary, we’re all on the same page I think.

 Q:               What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time? Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

 A:                People are more likely to work longer hours – partly because we have more work, partly because some of the current members of the co-op want more money than the founder members did – not sure why this is, I guess they have bigger outgoings. Also the culture is significantly affected by each person, as we’re small – we’re more into music-related and zine-related work than politics and co-op stuff, although there’s still a large proportion of that. We’re slightly less sociable with each other outside of work, but that’s just because the current crop aren’t so close and are all interested in different things. And we’ve all got partners, I guess that makes a difference!

 Thanks a lot Cath!

 Check out Footprint Workers Co-op

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, (feel free to add any further thoughts) and send to:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

 

26. June 2014 · Comments Off on Co-operantics Conversations #3 Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op · Categories: About Co-operatives, Tools, tips & techniques, Uncategorized

Conversation #3 is with Jane Ferrie of Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op, or MAJ for short. Formed in 1999 by a group of individuals from North London, most on welfare benefits or low waged, they have bought and converted a house in North London, as well as managing a house in which some members are tenants. Members are also involved in Haringey Solidarity Group, a non aligned local campaigning group. As part of the housing co-operative they hope to incorporate a meeting space and a few small office/ work spaces, for campaigning groups and others.

Hi Jane,

My first question is:

Q: Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or Policies & Procedures – or culture within the membership?

A: Definitely the most powerful is a co-operative ‘culture’ within the membership. However, that needs to be combined with playing to everyone’s strengths.

Q: How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: MAJ is a small co-op and we have had very few new members. The few we have had have already been familiar with our co-operative culture from being part of joint events with existing members of the co-op. Once actually in the co-op new members learn a lot from seeing what goes on at meetings. We don’t have a regular newsletter but take it in turns to write the MAJ contribution to the Radical Routes quarterly newsletter Radical Rumours. Writing down what you and other co-op members have been doing over the past three months can help reinforce co-op cohesion and culture.

Q: What would you say are the advantages of the way in which new recruits learn your culture?

A: The advantages are that it is organic and intuitive

Q: And the disadvantages?

A: that it is unstructured and might require rethinking if new members were to join who had not previously had any experience of living or working co-operatively.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: No, we haven’t, but we are thinking possibly of expanding the co-op so this will be something that we may well need to consider.

Q: Do you use a member agreement? (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)

A: No we don’t at the moment, because we have a set of primary and secondary rules that cover much of what would probably be covered by a membership agreement. However, if there were added benefits to a membership agreement we would consider it.

Q: What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time?  Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

A: It changed significantly once we got our first property and again when we took over the management of the other property where most of the rest of our members live. The move from talking and planning to hands on doing brought us focus and tangible results.

Thanks a lot Jane!

Check out Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op and follow @MAJHousingCoop

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

23. June 2014 · Comments Off on Co-operantics Conversations #2 The Phone Co-op · Categories: Uncategorized

Phone Co-op CEO Vivian Woodell said “Good co-op governance means getting culture, people, structure and process right” and other experienced co-operators have talked about the importance of ‘co-op culture’. But what is it? How do you build it and nurture it? We think there is much co-operatives can learn from each other, both in the UK and overseas. We will be posting Co-operantics Conversations with a range of different co-operatives over Co-ops Fortnight, so watch this space!

Conversation #2 is with Amanda Beard of The Phone Co-op

Hello Amanda,

My first question is:

Q:In your view, which is a more powerful influence on members’ (both consumer members and employee members) behaviour – policies, procedures and rules or culture within the membership?

A: Culture within the membership

Q:How do newly recruited employee members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: By observing colleagues during the working day, members’ behaviour in meetings and during the induction process. We also have regular Values and Principles courses to make sure that all employees understand what we are based upon.  We encourage all staff to attend Annual General Meetings and Half Yearly Meetings so that they can see democracy in action and we also try to involve as many of them as possible in the annual board election for the same reason.

Q:How do new consumer members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of your co-operative?

A: At the AGM; through regular newsletters and also through the information sent out regarding the annual election.

Q: What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new members ‘learn’ the culture in your co-operative?

A: New consumer members don’t have the opportunity to engage easily as we don’t have shops or obvious places to participate other than AGMs and HYMs.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: We are building a membership zone on our website, intending to add more information on the co-operative movement as well as regular blogs, polls and surveys.

Q: Do you use a member agreement and/or a members’ job description?  (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)

A: No we don’t – sounds a very interesting idea.

Q: Have you seen your co-operative culture change over time?

A: I don’t think it has changed significantly although, as we have employed more people, it has become harder to share the values and principles easily.

Thanks a lot Amanda!

Check out The Phone Co-op and follow @phonecoop

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

Co-ops Fortnight 21st June – 4th July – is the perfect time to come together and promote the vibrancy and strength of our sector. Co-operantics will celebrate Co-ops Fortnight with a series of ‘Co-operantics Conversations‘ where we will ask co-operators how they build and nurture a strong co-operative culture.

As a result of criticism levelled at poor governance at The Co-operative and the Co-operative Bank, there’s been a lot of heat and not a lot of light shone on the topic of co-operative governance. Experienced co-operators have talked about the importance of co-operative culture. But what is it? How do you build it and nurture it? We think there is much that co-operatives can learn from each other, both in the UK and overseas.

Our first Conversation is with Siôn Whellens of Calverts Co-operative: Design & Print

Hi Siôn,
My first question is:
Q: Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or policies & procedures – or culture within the membership?
A: We don’t have lots of policy codes, but we do have a lot of accepted procedures, developed by consensus decision making over the years. So often, ‘the way we do things’ has its roots in policy decisions and rule-making from a long time ago, before most of the current members can remember or tweaked from time to time.
Q: How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?
A: Watching the way clients, customers and neighbours interact with us; social media and our website; the reputation of the co-op; observing colleagues during the working day, ‘water cooler’ or lunch break gossip, behaviour of members in meetings, ease of participation in meetings and during the induction process.
Q: What would you say are the advantages of the way in which new recruits learn your culture?
A: People can take as long as they need to ‘get’ the culture (which can also be a disadvantage, but mostly it’s an advantage); it’s a mixture of ‘hard’ learning (e.g. understanding financial reports, environmental policy and procedures) and ‘skills’ learning (modes of discourse and interaction). It’s cheap, efficient and humane because it doesn’t rely on hard power or a management cadre, although it does rely on goodwill and the ‘soft power’ of the group.
Q: And the disadvantages?
A: We tend to assume that given enough time, people will align with and find their positive place in the culture, so we don’t ‘hand hold’ that much and we don’t review members’ performance as members, so it can take a long time to resolve problems.
Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?
A: More formal training in co-operative knowledge and skills during the probation year (quite likely to implement, if the current worker coop skills training and other events like Worker Weekend continue); a system for formal peer appraisals (always rejected!)
Q: Do you use a member job description? (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)
A: No! It might be difficult to introduce one, unless there was something we could borrow and tweak, because when things are going OK people say ‘why fix it if it ain’t broke’ and when things aren’t going well people have other priorities.
Q: What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time? Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?
A: Less overtly political as the business entered its golden phase and early members moved on; less ‘office politics’ (i.e. internal caucusing and organising around ‘agendas’), as the average age changed from 25-ish to 45-ish, and also because it led to conflicts which caused a lot of grief and nearly destroyed the co-op. We grew up.

Thanks a lot Siôn!

Check out Calverts Co-op: Design & Print and follow Siôn @Scumboni

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

09. June 2014 · Comments Off on Coming soon for Co-operatives Fortnight! · Categories: Uncategorized

At Co-operantics we have a few activities coming up for Co-operatives Fortnight.

We are organising some informal co-op networking in Bristol and Southampton, but of more interest to the rest of you, we will be hosting a series of “Co-operantics Conversations“.  We will be talking through some co-operative governance issues with various members of co-ops and publishing their thoughts in a bid to help co-ops learn from each other and spread good practice.  Keep your eyes peeled!

You can find out more about Co-operatives Fortnight on the Co-operatives UK website and using hashtag #coops14 on Twitter.

06. June 2014 · Comments Off on Is it time to widen the focus of co-operative housing and look at new forms of finance ? · Categories: Uncategorized
How rent is partially made up of profit for property owners

How rent is partially made up of profit for property owners

Here is a simple proposition.  When people pay rent, it is not used to line the pockets of a property owner (e.g. Buy to Let) but used to cover the costs of providing the accommodation, with a little surplus for a rainy day and towards acquiring more properties so the benefit can be shared.  The resulting rent would be cheaper as the “top slice” of profit required for the landlord is taken out of the equation.

What’s more, if the property is owned and democratically controlled by those tenants, they will take care of their homes and will seek ways to manage and maintain the property that save money, because it is in their own mutual interest. We are talking about a housing co-operative.  It’s a “no-brainer” in a country that is suffering from a housing crisis and in which rent is spiraling out of control to satisfy the needs of investors.

However, there is a problem.  In order to buy the property you need to have sufficient money to put down as a deposit.  This is the primary reason why housing co-operatives are not as prevalent as you would expect given they are a “no-brainer”.  The problem of accessing capital to lever in finance to purchase the house has come up again and again with potential housing co-op start ups. So maybe we need to have another look at the financing of housing co-ops.

I have been involved as a professional advisor to housing co-operatives since 1998 and was an active member of a 70-member housing co-operative which is a Registered Provider (holding various officer roles including Treasurer) for 12 years.   In addition to supporting existing housing co-ops to improve governance or operational matters and to acquire properties, I have also worked with a number of capable pre-start groups who have had their intentions and efforts frustrated.

Blue sky thinking

I am challenging some of my own views here.  I’m not necessarily saying that what I suggest in this piece is how I want the world to be, but if we aim to grow the co-operative elements of the housing sector we need to broaden our horizons beyond our current focus and personal desires.  So, beware…blue skies ahead

 

There has been a tradition of those who speak for the UK Housing Co-op “movement” to focus on public sector housing and public funding for housing co-operatives.  They are doing a great job which needs doing, but this is only part of the housing landscape.  To make demands of the public purse to support co-operative housing while all political parties are committed to reducing public spend – winning a bigger slice of the cake while the cake is being reduced in overall size – should not be our only tactic.   Additionally access to public monies also brings with it the regulation of being a Registered Provider which carries an  administrative burden requiring scale and, from my observations, a tendency to move from a radical to a conservative focus.  I used to find myself fighting a battle to retain the members’ interests over the regulators demands – and winning, I might add.

This means that we have a widely accepted construct in the UK that to be a “housing co-operative” worthy of note you have to a) be of a certain size and operate in a certain way, and b) only provide housing for rent for people in need.  So what of those who are not technically in need but want to avail themselves of co-operative housing?  There’s a gap in the market, and the private rented market is set to boom by all accounts.  A case of need, a market, and co-operatives offering member benefit that provides a better offer than the market is fertile ground for co-operative development.

I believe there is room to encourage entrepreneurialism and growth of the co-operative control of housing by being widerin our definition of co-operative housing.  To grow co-operative housing we may have to challenge our own sacred cows.  There is a difference between what we ought to call “Co-operative housing associations” which is the well developed part of the UK sector and “co-operative housing” meaning housing that has some form of co-operative ownership and/or control.

Moving beyond co-operative housing for renters

In the UK there has been a tendency to downplay any role other than the renter-landlord dynamic.  Why is co-ownership ignored?  It isn’t ignored in the worker and enterprise owned co-operative sectors (notably the agricultural sector).  I am a huge fan of common ownership in general and social ownership of housing but we ought to accept exploring some level of co-ownership as an option if we aim to grow the co-operative movement and to use the advantages of mutuality to address housing issues.

Some people are interested in partial (or whole) private ownership of properties within a co-operative environment.  For instance, I have worked with a group who have potential members willing to sell their homes and invest in a co-operative to provide capital for a development in which they will live.  We had to unpick the difference between a mortgage holder who completes their loan and then has a vastly reduced household outgoing over time and the renter who pays rent in perpetuity.

People who have valuable properties may be interested in co-ownership, or may want to invest their equity to enable the creation of housing managed co-operatively in which they can live.  But do they get equity growth or just a reasonable  return on that equity?  And what is reasonable in this context – if the return on equity is not enough to cover the rent?  They have swapped a completed or near completed mortgage for a rental property and locked up their equity.  It throws up challenges.  But we should meet those challenges, not ignore them.

Maybe it is time to blaze a new trail for entry into co-operative housing for people other than renters.  My clients are still absorbing and considering the issues this has thrown up and what the final “offer” will be to the different “types” of member – all of whom will still have equal voting rights in how the co-operative is managed.

Co-housing is relatively small but growing in the UK. Some schemes incorporate private ownership and some Community Land Trusts offer private ownership but co-housing and CLTs are meeting specific needs (shared space and land ownership) that not all private owners will be interested in.

Ageing population

We have an ageing population who are asset rich but may require low level support if they are to stay independent in their homes.  There could be innovative co-operative solutions to meeting the support needs of home owners and the housing needs of others.  One brings equity, the other brings time.  Together they create a mutual solution.

Leaseholders

What of the co-operativisation of leaseholders?  There are many leasholder companies for small blocks of flats that are established as share companies and often run by ex-bankers, stockbrokers or solicitors bringing private sector behaviours of hierarchy.  Co-operative principles could be introduced to these organisations and empower all the leaseholders, while providing the wider social benefits a co-operative brings over those of a private mutual.

“Buy to co-op”

What about “buy to co-op” instead of “buy to let” i.e. instead of establishing housing associations, we establish buy to let entities that just happen to be owned by the people who rent from them (or maybe even allow in investors in a limited capacity, or staff, using a multi-stakeholder model). They could provide a dividend return (profit share)s rather than the model of pre-distribution in the form of lower rents that UK Housing Co-ops offer.

Is access to capital the problem?

The biggest barrier to developing co-operative housing I have come across is access to sufficient capital to acquire a mortgage.  Some co-ops have used loanstock but this is fairly limited.  Withdrawable share capital probably isn’t the right approach if you are fully mutual and only want tenants or occupiers controlling the housing, so should we be considering a different approach that enables outside investors to support the needs of tenants without the tenants giving up control over management – a hybrid of the Community Land Trust model and the Housing Co-operative model.  Radical Routes have been working to establish a secondary co-op that will own some of the equity in new-start co-ops: Co-operative Principles put into action to grow the movement.  Yet the Radical Routes members are a tiny percentage of co-operative housing in the UK. Another innovation could be mutual guarantee schemes (or co-ops mortgaging their existing owned assets to release development capital for other co-ops) which enable new co-ops to establish themselves in the early days when it is not profitability but access to capital that dictates the success, failure or growth rate of a housing co-operative.  Rather than ask the government and policy makers to act, I suggest our own movement does something. (Remember those Co-operative Values of self-help and solidarity?)

One innovation that I am certain we need to promote as a movement is inward investment from the co-operative movement into co-operative housing.   In particular, we could target pension funds held by large co-operative employers. There must be some mechanism that can be created – even in the current legal framework – which would allow a pension fund to invest in housing developments that just so happen to be co-operatives.  Maybe a “co-operative housing fund” that invests bonds or similar – I know nothing about pensions!  And if they are start-ups with higher risk then the returns might be higher in the same way the traditional stock holders approach investments in high risk companies.

This would enable models other than the Registered Provider, which allows for a more diverse sector (lots of small co-ops as well as large ones). Some people I have met have been put off housing co-ops by their experiences in poorly run larger scale co-ops which devalue the individual operating on a tyranny by of the minority basis (like the state socialist approach of the needs of the individual being ignored or undermined for the “greater good”…now intone after me “The greater good”). Yes, part of the answer is to improve larger co-ops, but perhaps we need to question scale and encourage co-ops of all sizes.

Co-operative developers

If we are talking about co-operative involvement in the housing sector (which is what the pre-amble covered), why has the development side been left untouched?  Supply is part of the housing economy.  Mainstream developers have one goal:shareholder return.  What about co-operative developers – either owned by groups of housing co-ops, or as multi-stakeholder co-ops incorporating workers, customer housing co-ops (and maybe even investors) rather than operating purely for profit putting some of their profits into the community by funding CLTs or common ownership housing co-operatives.

Time to innovate?

Should we be innovating to address these capital issues (including more member investment) and move into less traditional areas – growing what for the UK would be a relatively new type of co-op housing? I.e. One that moves beyond the social housing sector and into the private sector.

Should our strategic innovation be to move away reliance on state intervention and toward self-responsibility, self-reliance as a movement and promoting Co-operative Principles 6 and 7 in investment away from government back to member users and other investors from the movement?  I am not saying ignore state controlled grant funding, but let’s not be prisoners of it!

More co-operation!

This blog by Co-operantics member Nathan Brown first appeared on his “Social Enterprise? Help!” blog.  Co-operantics has worked with a number of UK Housing Co-ops and continues to provide governance, strategic and business planning support to housing co-operatives, worker co-operatives and community co-operatives.

21. May 2014 · Comments Off on Co-operatives Fortnight – Let’s Co-operate! · Categories: Uncategorized

What are you doing for Co-operatives Fortnight?  At Co-operantics we know the Co-operative Values and Principles can be used as a guide to transact business successfully as a co-operative.  This year, for Co-operatives Fortnight, we are focusing on the 6th principle “Co-operation Among Co-operatives”.

During Co-operatives Fortnight we are going to organise some co-op networking in Bristol and Southampton, where our members are based.  If your co-op is in either of those areas, get in touch and let’s see if we can work together to the mutual benefit of our co-ops.

Everyone can get involved in Co-operatives Fortnight.  Check out the Co-operatives Fortnight website for further details.