How many pub owners does it take to change a village?

Peter Maher is one of 182 pub owners in Ennerdale, in the Lake District. You might for a moment think that is a tad excessive, but none of the owners has it as their job and there is only one pub in the village… which, of course, they all own.

Peter is a natural story teller and I heard his inspired tale recently, as he showed me how the village had come together. The local tradition, he explained, is for people to meet in a village ‘gather’ to discuss what was needed locally. But, depressingly, when they met this time last year, their concerns were identical to the year before. Not a single thing had happened.

The village was asleep, but woken up with alacrity only a few days later, when the Fox and Hounds suddenly closed down.

The pub had gone through different hands over the years, never with any great success, but the villagers feared that it’s closure would spell the end of any practical community for the area. Their post office, shop and bus service had all already been axed.

They needed £83,000 within only ten days to buy the pub and, using the flexible legal model of the co-operative society that enables people to come together in this way, they raised it. On the morning of Day One, they were at £2,500 and with every commitment, the news spread and the tally rose. They raised all the finance within eight days.

110 of the owners and their children and dogs then turned to the practical renovation in double time in their spare time. The charm, the peer encouragement and Peter’s organisational skills all helped to get it trading again fast – ‘do I have to work in the toilets again? Oh all right.’ It is true that some people couldn’t do what, in a heroic spirit, they said they could and the numbers dropped off – though not the toilet renovation crew – but they knew that everyone would be there if there was a crunch point.

The pub is designed now as a traditional village pub, but they have made sure that there are signs and a warm communal welcome for walkers that descend into the village at the end of the first day of the coast to coast walk. They will, you feel, make a success of it, because they are proud of what they have done and what they own. Talk is good but action makes communities.

The “support of the wider co-operative sector”, Peter says, “was invaluable.” (take a bow, Dave Hollins and the Co-operative Enterprise Hub)

When he finishes his tale, the first question is predictably “what is the price of a pint of beer?” My wife argues that this is the single most common item of discussion among men (well, it is a big issue. If climate change hit the price of beer, you’d really get us talking).

The answer is you should come and find out, if you are ever up in the wilded dale of the village. But you will find change from a tenner for a lunch and a pint.

And next? They want to reopen the library and convert a barn into a village shop. Spring 2012 is the target date.

When the times get tough, the tough get co-operative.

Post it mutual

The government has just closed its consultation on a mutual model for the Post Office.

There is some confusion in the commentary around this. The argument isn’t about a consumer mutual for the Post Office. Rather, it is whether there should be some representation alongside the small business sub-postmasters and staff.

The issue is in whose interest it is all run. Can a producer co-operative in a market which is non-competitive, so consumers have little or no choice, be 100% aligned with the public interest mission required by statute for the post office network? If you don’t internalise some voice for the consumer interest, even if indirectly representative, then you end up having to do it through external regulation or the courts.

Either route feels to me perhaps like a somewhat unhappy substitute for the current model of direct state ownership – but equally I am open-minded if this is the way, after deliberation, that those involved choose to go.

Our consultation response is here – Co-operatives UK response to POL consultation 2011

Portas Plan

Good for Mary Portas. She was given a tough task, to explore how to revive Britain’s high streets. Her review is full of energy, life and creativity. In my words, not hers, the call is for all the parties involved – small business and big, local authorities and residents – to co-operate.

I like her stress that if we can create convivial spaces, we can then create sustainable habitats for local shopping and local enterprise.

The challenge is that we often have neither the structures nor the cultures at the local level to co-operate, so that all the best ideas remain just that – ideas. If we want to renew our high streets, we have to value them. But we also need the economic, business and planning models that are about reinvestment and sharing the benefits. Without that, I fear, the review may end up being interpreted as one more call for voluntarism. Let’s hope there is enough practice and there are enough communities that can prove that wrong.

Is mutualisation a word?

Is mutualisation a word?

I have been responsible for the odd bit of cringe-worthy damage to the English language over the years – removing the space between fair and trade in the launch of the ‘Fairtrade’ mark in the early 1990s was one and helping with others to bring the ugly duckling term ‘co-production’ to the UK was another. I am not sure Henrietta Moore and I used the term ‘mutualisation’ in the report we wrote for the New Economics Foundation over a decade ago, The Mutual State, although I think the think tank Demos then did. But the word seems now to be official.

The Cabinet Office has launched a mutualisation advice line today that we are making an input into. Luckily, it isn’t about jargon, but about practical guidance for those with an interest in mutual models for public services. Alongside this is an evidence paper, led by Henrietta’s former (LSE) colleague Professor Julian LeGrand.

There is still a pretty wide gap between policy hope and frontline practice, but the examples of successful co-operatives we have found overseas, such as in Italy, Spain and Sweden, stress the need for this kind of expert advice, a focus on quality and then a patient framework of support.