Crazy, co-operative and fighting back: the success story of Liverpool’s housing activists

Carole Rich was given her first garden gnome when the housing co-op that she formed with her neighbours opened, thirty six years ago. “They thought I was crazy so it was a gift for crazy woman” she says.

At the time, the street was being demolished and it had taken four long years to get home, this time in new houses formed as Hesketh Street Housing Co-op. Those years had taken every ounce of determination and charm that Carole possessed, visiting slate factories, brick makers, furniture stalls, to keep people together, to keep their belief and to get the new development going.

Today, Carole is on the board not just of the co-op but also of North West Housing Services, which is a vibrant secondary co-op, registered in recent years with input from and now a member of Co-operatives UK.

North West support thirty four housing co-ops across Merseyside. On my visit today to the team, in the run up to Communities Week 2019, I met Carole and visited Lodge Lane East, a second co-op which is taking on a new property to create space for people with disabilities.

Ian, the Treasurer of the co-op, told me the story of the new building they were putting up on derelict ground. The land had been fenced off, with rubbish thrown over and when local people, members of the co-op, looked at the ownership, they found that it had been taken off a convicted criminal via a compulsory purchase order. The city authority owned it, but they didn’t know it.

The co-op, with over two hundred homes and clean finances, having paid off the last of its debts to NatWest Bank, offered to buy it at a discount to put up flats that would be an affordable alternative to the rogue landlords and high rents of the area, itself a short distance from where the controversial £1 Houses: Britain’s cheapest street was filmed.

“As a co-op, we are trying to raise the area, while others are trying to bring it down. We have houses with soiled nappies in the entrance, the remnants of a pig slaughtered in the yards, a brothel now closed down. Private landlords operate with immunity, one responding to damp by ripping out the skirting board and leaving a hole. The authorities should be cracking down on all this, but as a community, we have to fight back ourselves.”

Finance for the development came in part from loans from the other housing co-ops through North West Housing (North West has also invested money in recent community shares issues by other co-ops, including Leeds Community Homes and renewable energy co-ops in Liverpool and Drumlin, Northern Ireland).

With the new building weeks from being completed, the Lodge Lane East co-op members have gained confidence. The works manager told me that they have had no trouble, no threats while they have been there.

“We get a lot of respect. And we have a taste for it now” says Ian.

For Carole, her local area has already begun to come up in the world. A working class area with housing for servants has gone up market, with bohemian cafes and shops on nearby Lark Lane.

The housing co-op means that local people keep a stake in the area, forming a backbone of the community that helps to give it its colour and life. A one up, one down house next to the co-op area sells for £190,000; crazy prices for the city.

For Carole, her collection of gnomes has grown along with her family, smiling out in front of her house and under the awning in her garden. Her grandchildren give her more as gifts.

Carole’s co-op craziness has been passed on.


Mass co-operation

It has been a few days of criss-crossing the country for me, as we launch Co-op Fortnight 2019.

On Friday night, we reported the results of our annual Co-op Awards. Over thirty thousand people voted for UK co-ops they love across a range of categories. The Leading Co-operative went to The Co-op Group, a worthy winner no doubt for the extraordinary progress made over the last four years.

A new initiative is the Lifetime Achievement Award, which, following open nominations, went to the wonderful Roger Sawtell, a pioneer of worker co-ops and a celebrated man of faith.

Bristol Wood Recycling, Breakthrough Co-op of the Year

On Friday and Saturday, our Co-op Congress turned a spotlight onto the many areas of promise and progress for new co-operation, with a keynote address from the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham.

Sunday I was down to Kent, for a licensing event for my brother, starting work as a prison chaplain working with young offenders.

This morning, I was across to Cardiff, as one of the speakers for a gathering of inspiring coop businesses coordinated by the Wales Coop Centre. My ride in town was with a growing new taxi co-op, formed by drivers to keep more of the earnings in an age of lift sharing and apps.

Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters AM

Today has also seen the re-signing of a new partnership agreement by the ILO, the International Labour Organisation, and the ICA, the International Cooperative Alliance.

This evening I will be in Leicester to give the annual lecture for the Society for Cooperative Studies.

All this at the start of Coop Fortnight, which will run up to Saturday July 6th – celebrated around the world as the United Nations International Cooperatives Day.

I am talking in Leicester about twelve early historic examples of cooperation. They range, among others, from ancient China and India to the Roman Empire and mediaeval Turkey.

They are extraordinary stories. They are also a recognition that today’s co-ops are not the exception, but instead are expressive of a deep and recurrent pattern of mutuality over time in the way that people choose to organise.

We are perhaps at our most human when we are engaged in mass cooperation.

The UK’s first Chief Values Officer

The field of values in business has been growing in importance for some time and it is a genuine milestone that we can now welcome the UK’s first dedicated Chief Values Officer for a major business.

Pete Westall will take this executive team role at the independent co-operative Midcounties, a diversified retail business that employs 8,500 staff and is co-owned by 700,000 members.

Culture and values have long been seen as the soft side of business, but are now widely recognised as key to commercial success over time. The UK Corporate Governance Code for listed companies last year set out expectations that every Board should take action to set and monitor goals around organisational culture and values.

But who should lead on this? If it is HR, then how do you ensure that supply chains and external relations are covered? If it is risk and compliance, then how do values make their way into product and service innovation? If it is the CEO, then how do you avoid this being swamped by other demands on their time?

The idea of a Chief Values Officer was something we explored in a 2017 workshop of the UK Values Alliance, the member network that pioneered World Values Day – now held every October on the third Thursday of the month. I wrote this workshop up as a post – Introducing the Chief Values Officer – and one of those reading it was Pete himself.

Midcounties has a long track record of firsts. It was the first business, alongside a handful of other co-ops, to publish the details of their tax, under the Fair Tax Mark. It was first to offer consumers full traceability on their local food sales, through QR codes and a new app, Happerley. With member backing, plastics are on their way down and Midcounties is one of only a few businesses to be rated five star by Business in the Community. Through Co-operatives UK, Midcounties was named Leading Co-op of the Year in 2018.

Out of the global set of co-operative and ethical values, Midcounties under the leadership of CEO Phil Ponsonby and its elected Board, places a priority on four throughout its work – Democracy, Openness, Equality and Social Responsibility (DOES).

It is easy to see values as a constraint, as an attempt to keep institutions in train. It is a different approach to see values as a source of opportunity.

It’s coming. In today’s world of empowered consumers, concerned employees and instant social media, values and culture is the next frontier for business.

Pop to the Co-op

The first Annual General Meetings – for mediaeval guilds – took place on Saints Days, so there was time off and a feast to share. It can seem a tougher gig nowadays, but it is the Annual General Meeting in Manchester of The Co-op Group this weekend and for the past few years, this has been a wonderfully uplifting event.

Five successive years of like-for-like growth in food sales means that there is a spring in the step of The Co-op. Alongside trading, there is an increasingly ambitious and far-reaching programme of reinvestment in the communities in which The Co-op is located.

Being owned by members and not by shareholders means that The Co-op can do things that benefit their 4.5 million members and their communities across the UK rather than a small number of institutional investors in the City of London.

Under the leadership of Steve Murrells, for example, The Co-op was first to back British farmers by sourcing all meat from them – everything from the fresh cuts you’d expect to be British to the ready meals, the sandwiches, bacon and sausages. It wasn’t just an ethical thing to do, it was also smart business. With Brexit, others are having to catch up, with their overseas supply chains less secure.

A key theme this weekend is likely to be about how to make this reinvestment visible, so that it is clear to people that when they pop to the Co-op in their community, the community benefits.

With the High Street under pressure, shops being undercut because they pay taxes that online businesses avoid, the challenge at a community level is greater than ever. The data around this is set out in a new Community Wellbeing Index developed for The Co-op by the Young Foundation (named after Michael Young, one of the great innovators and co-operators of the twentieth century).

One pound spent in a Co-op store brings an added forty pence in benefits to the local economy. We know this from work we have done at Co-operatives UK tracing how customer spending has a different impact in retail co-ops to other businesses, where the value is extracted for outside, whether headquarters in the UK or for some, tax havens overseas.

As one colleague at The Co-op puts it:

When you buy from Co-op it does good. The more you, your friends and family shop with Co-op, the more good we can do in our communities. Good things like investing in community spaces, improving wellbeing and helping people develop their skills.

Every community needs an economic and social base for its health and increasingly we see co-ops and social enterprise, large and small, as catalysts for this urgently needed form of community economic development.

So, yes. Where we shop can make a real difference.

Lilac in bloom

Every business has its story and the birth of Lilac, an award-winning young community housing co-op in Leeds, has been told many times. Built with straw bales for sustainability and warmth by a vibrant, can-do community of people, Lilac has become a poster child for a different model of housing in the UK.

It was such a pleasure to visit Lilac today, for the first time, after a trip to the Yorkshire Building Society and to see the progress of this practical, visionary settlement, converted from a former school, closed down many years before.

As a sign fixed humorously by the path reads, this way lies utopia.

I am grateful to the members that welcomed me in and showed me around. The first residents moved in in 2013. There is a profound sense of community and of values which comes across in all the detail, as well as a sense of constant and active problem-solving. “We love showing people around as we love living here“, I was told.

Here is one of the best annual reports I have seen of any organisation – an overview of who did what and how it went over 2017-2018 on one single poster size piece of paper, up in the Common House in Lilac Grove that is used for shared meals, shared events… and collecting the post.

Lilac benefited in 2017 from advice through the business support programme we run for co-ops, The Hive, in partnership with the Co-operative Bank. The model behind Lilac is one, I was reminded, that originated in work at the New Economics Foundation as it happens when I was Director there, working with CDS Coop Housing.

In a Mutual Housing Ownership Society, the members make an investment and in return, they get equity shares in the society and the use of one of the homes. The society takes out a collective mortgage and costs can be spread across members according to the ability of each to pay. Equity shares are linked to the mortgage and if you leave you can sell them.

As a community led project, when the planning application went in, there were twenty seven responses from the neighbours, all in favour, with no objections.

Lilac takes many of our most insuperable contemporary challenges, of sustainability, of isolation and of inequality and shows how to tackle them together. This Lilac is in bloom.

How beer barrels, teabags and salmon became an alternative to reporting on profit… with a new guide to Key Performance Indicators for co-ops

It can be a liberating exercise for any organisation to talk about what success looks like.

For co-ops, set up to meet a wide variety of needs, it is also an essential task, because the pressures are always to behave like any other business. So, it is good that we have new guidance out for co-ops on one building block, which is about finding the right Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to track how you are doing.

Barrels of beer is one indicator of a social club I visited in Yorkshire. The more barrels, the more people, the more sales and the more use made by the community. Not perfect, but simple and memorable. Tea bags used is another one, in a community setting.

For Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, a key indicator is keeping properties in use, with tenants staying longer and lower levels of vacancies.

For the largest co-operatives, it is about measuring things that, added together, make for what is most important. I visited VanCity Credit Union In Canada at the very start of their efforts to measure their difference – we acted as their first ‘social auditor’ when I was at the New Economics Foundation. Today, VanCity is a recognised leader in social and environmental reporting, active in the growing Banking on Values movement. Their 525,000 members hear about how the credit union is doing against three headline measures, with a scaffold of targets and indicators underneath:“we measure three connected outcomes – impact, confidence and integrity.”

There is a growing wealth of metrics out there now, particularly at the neighbourhood level. One indicator I recall that was chosen to capture local quality of life was the number of salmon in the local river. Measures are like these are not just numbers, they are indicators in the sense of being resonant of something larger.

And like all numbers, if you follow them blindly, you lose the line of sight with that larger sense of what success looks like. I have written an article on “what is the best way to prove your social impact” for Co-op News in which I contrast the corporate and sustainability reporting of Shell – more pages put together than Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, published new every year – with the Blockley Village Shop and Café in Gloucestershire, which keeps everything short, because members can see how it is doing when they drop by for their shopping or coffee. For the village shop, indicators are part of a short chain of accountability, part of the conversation. For the oil giant, necessarily complex perhaps but unnecessarily opaque, the numbers are a substitute for accountability.

In the new guide, written by Shelagh Everett and overseen by the Co-operative Performance Committee, what is invaluable is the linking of potential indicators with the underlying values and principles of co-operatives. It complements guidance Co-ops UK published last year on ‘narrative reporting’ – beyond the numbers and the annual accounts.

There are many alternatives to relying on profit as the key metric for reporting. An example is metrics around the co-operative principle of democratic member control:

So what is right for your organisation? Beer barrels or impact and integrity? As Shelagh concludes in the guidance:

“The best KPIs can provide the common thread that links purpose, strategy and activity to the work of the board, employees, members and volunteers. But be careful. The wrong KPIs will hinder you if they are not embedded in the way the organisation works.”

Are you well connected?

I don’t mean in terms of social circles, I wouldn’t presume. But in terms of line speed for your smart phone and computer?

The answer is that it depends in large part where you live. Urban concentrations, big cities are milliseconds faster. Coastal villages or rural market towns can be a go-make-a-cup-of-tea slower.

Rolling out fibre networks, the key to high speed broadband, is something that is national policy, but to date it has been dominated by private companies who want to control as much of the infrastructure as they can – and then charge the rents that any good monopoly can extract. Openreach, the network activity formerly known as BT, can act as a wholesale operator, which can then be used by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). But they make the same basic offer when it comes to extending broadband – you pay and we will own.

Set up in 2011 by a technology specialist, Barry Forde, with colleagues, B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) is a co-operative alternative. Now with twelve hundred members, it has connected around four thousand rural properties with high quality broadband (1,000Mbps FTTH) at a cost of only £30 per month. As one industry observer told me, admiringly, their model succeeds in leveraging community engagement in a way that dramatically decreases costs. 

The idea of developing infrastructure in a co-operative form has been an extraordinary success in the USA over time, both with telephone lines and with rural electricity networks:

  • Rural electricity co-ops employ around 58,000 people in the USA, operating on a non-profit basis. Their story is told in this short video from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which brings together 900 enterprises.

One of the leading national initiatives in the UK that has drawn on the US story, shaped by Malcolm Corbett and colleagues, is the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA). INCA has been remarkably successful in recent years, shaping national policy and carving out space for its 120 plus business members, including B4RN, which are independent network operators.

“Together, the independents form the UK’s third digital infrastructure competitor, alongside BT and Virgin” explains Malcolm.

INCA has also proven again the worth of the approach, which is that if you are dealing with a natural monopoly, then the benefit of the co-operative model is that it offers a way of ensuring voice and fair practice by enfranchising those who depend on the monopoly. If the problematic monopoly provider Openreach had been converted ten years ago to a co-operative of network operators, Britain would arguably be far further ahead in terms of world-class, ‘gigabit-capable’ internet speeds right across the UK, for better connectivity and faster downloads.

This is the infrastructure that Britain now needs for economic development. It used to be the case that towns and cities flocked to build business parks, to serve and attract business to an area. Now, land is expensive and more useful anyway for housing. It is more digital infrastructure that new businesses need, not more business parks.

But how can this be done? In market towns or rural areas, there is a need to join key groups together – it may be hospitals or town halls or housing associations that would benefit from the latest digital infrastructure (and increasingly healthcare and wider public services will need that anyway). But acting alone is uncoordinated and contracting to a company creates cost and dependency. Under EU State Aid rules, anyway, public money should not be benefiting private firms by giving them control of the infrastructure. When Amsterdam upgraded its city networks to shiny new and fast, it had to separate out the network into three levels, each reflecting a different layer of technology (and scope for commercial value): passive, active and service level.

Well, the answer could be co-operative.

Working together to build infrastructure at lower cost is the logic behind a new co-operative I visited in Aston-under-Lyne, at the invitation of the serial digital co-operative entrepreneur Shaun Fensom. This is the Tameside Digital Infrastructure Co-operative, which is successfully rolling out fibre in the area.

The co-operative allows all the different players to pool access to their properties without handing over the keys of ownership. It is, says Shaun, “a thin layer mutual.”

This allows for the re-use of public assets and extends fibre access, open to all. It solves the subsidy question as it avoids giving any state aid. It cuts out the costs and waste of competing private networks, by promoting collaboration at the ‘passive’ level, leaving competition to work at the ‘active’ and ‘service’ levels: whether they are national telecoms names or indeed local providers.

The Tameside Co-op model, chaired by Tim Rainey, has been recognised as an innovation by national Government, and late last year an event took place in Federation, the digital hub in Manchester across from our own home, to promote and test the model more widely.

Praise for the Tameside Co-op from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport at an event at Federation, Manchester

I met with the co-op in the stunning venue of the Ashton Old Baths, a listed heritage beauty that has been lovingly converted into digital enterprise incubator.

A number of other parts of the country are exploring whether to join in, from major city regions and coastal towns in the North to rolling rural hills in the South. This can only grow. It is, one would think a natural, for localities that are part of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network.

Of course, it is still early days. Should there be a national programme and a common co-op to join or a spread of local co-ops?

But the idea that we can go faster, by connecting together… is taking root.