Forage time

One of the most enjoyable things I have done recently is to go on a foraging course. Through woods and fields, bewilderment turns to delight when you spot something you take a share of to eat or, later, to cook.

Finding fat chestnuts overlooked by the squirrels is a game good as any and I traded some in this week for Zena’s perfect autumn pumpkin and chestnut soup.

Walking near Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk these last few days, with family and dog, I came across a windfall of green and rouged little crab apples.

“Oh, look … Crab apples” I called out.

“They’re not that bad, Dad” came the reply…

Coming up for air

Am reading George Orwell and hope one day to get through all his writing.

This comment on politics of a hundred years ago is from Coming Up For Air: “people took politics seriously in those days. They used to begin storing up rotten eggs weeks before an election.”

The co-operative barometer

The media has been full of the debate in the run up to spending cuts about what is fairness and how fair is Britain. It is a good debate to have.

So we have launched a new economic indicator – ‘The Co-operative Barometer’ – outside the Stock Exchange which looks at what the public believe.

Most people do not believe that ‘we are all in this together’. Our findings on fairness show that:

  • One in three people (32%) believe there are equal opportunities in the UK
  • One in four (25%) believe that Britons do their bit to help people in need
  • The only region across the UK that stands out with a positive view of helping out others is the North East of England
  • Over two thirds of people (68%) say that people don’t behave towards others in the way that they would want to be treated
  • One in five (19%) say that they way business treats them is fair. For co-operative businesses, this is three quarters of people (75%)
  • Only one in ten people (10%) believe the distribution of wealth is fair.

If you think that fairness is just motherhood and apple pie, try dividing up the pie unequally between children and watch what happens. We care about fairness and we also have an instinctive, though not always consistent, sense of what is fair or unfair.


“In a service economy such as the UK, markets do better when people know they will be treated fairly. In asking the people of Britain how fair they feel we are as a nation, we are helping to fill a gap. We hope that fairness can become a regular and recognised measure of economic trends.”


The full report – ‘The Co-operative Barometer: how fair is Britain?’ is available at


A happy anniversary

Two years ago today I gave a speech to NSPCC, calling for websites marketing to children to be classed as advertising and so subject to the rules of the Committee on Advertising Practice, and the Advertising Standards Authority.

So much marketing had moved online that there is a need for the rules to catch up.

I then wrote an open letter to the Advertising Association, naming Disney, Lego, Barbie and Bratz as sites that were breaking basic rules, such as not encouraging pester power. The Advertising Association, rather appropriately perhaps, got into childish strop and said that this kind of letter wasn’t fair.

It is uplifting news then that this change has now been introduced and will come into force on March 1st 2011.

Simple and sensible.

Up the miners

there’s been a lot of coverage of Luis Urzua’s first interview (the foreman of the Chilean miners) saying that the 33 miners survived because they debated and voted democratically and had a strong sense of solidarity. Good example of direct democracy in action of the kind many worker co-operatives use . . .

The media are disputing the claims saying there was more division than his version implies. They are probably right, but again those who practice direct democracy (like co-ops) know that democracy is not always about a smooth consensus but argument, division etc.

The Chilean miners show that direct democracy, however difficult, can work even in the most dire situations.

Consumer loss

So Consumer Focus and the Office of Fair Trading are both to go. These are no small changes and show no indication that this Government has ideas on how it hopes to promote the UK as a home for competitive markets rather than as a shelter for dodgy dealing.

There is a great pamphlet by Philip Cullum from Consumer Focus out now on the exact difference between these two.

We are all worse off without you.

Greener dog days

We are often told that hard times bring forward the greatest innovation. It would be good if that were true, but if you are not sure, there is a great book coming that can help you.

Sustainability in Austerity: How Local Government Can Deliver During Times of Crisis by Philip Monaghan looks at how local authorities can help to make the cuts that really matter – in pollution, carbon and waste.

Consumer Focus and Office of Fair Trading under threat

It will be a crap day for consumers if government axes two bodies that have an outstanding track record of holding companies to account.

The origins of Consumer Focus, for whom I was privileged to be the first Chief Executive, date back to the 1970s, with the formation of the National Consumer Council. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT), the second possibly under threat, is in great form. Both organisations can genuinely claim to have reformed markets and saved consumers billions of pounds.

It is right to review the consumer and competition regime, if the aim is to speed up investigations and ensure that regulators themselves champion consumers. There is certainly work to do and the current system wasn’t doing all it could. But the costs of a botched job to save public expenditure will land on ordinary consumers, who face the stealth tax in future of companies allowed to overcharge. It is like robbing Peter and Paul at the same time.

Why does Ireland, after all, now have the highest consumer prices in Europe? An in-depth commission not so long ago concludes it was precisely because Ireland did not have bodies like Consumer Focus and the OFT.

Mike O’Connor, who took over from me at Consumer Focus, said on BBC radio this weekend – “Government has to take this decision and we wait to see what they have got to say.” Rightly, he defends the value for money of a wonderful team of people that he leads, in Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast and London. “We cost the taxpayer in our core grant about £6m a year. Just last week we won a return to consumers of over £70m from the energy companies. And three months ago through our super complaint we changed the ISA rules so savers will get an extra £15m a year.”

And what a victory it was last week in relation to nPower and the energy bills – a tenacious, hard-fought campaign in the face of corporate and regulatory obfuscation. Well done to all involved – heads high now.

Dartington days

Am teaching for two days at Schumacher College, in Dartington, Devon. As ever, a wonderful confluence of people, nature and reflection.

Also a talk to the original transition town network in Totnes on low carbon co-operatives.

Credit union injection

In the USA, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, costing hundreds of billions of dollars has been put to bed. But with an interesting twist.

In response to public sentiment that the funding went to bailout large, prosperous banks who are simply resuming their profitable ways while shutting down access to credit, the Treasury Department and the Obama Administration developed a program back in February to invest some of the money quite differently – in community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and credit unions that serve low-income and minority communities.

As a result, almost $70 million is now being invested by the US Treasury as long-term, low-cost, equity-like debt in community development credit unions, and a further $500 million in community development banks.

Relief for communities, not just banks. Let’s hope the idea is taken up here in the UK too. Anyone for quantitative easing directed through cooperative and mutual financial institutions?