A community energy revolution?

There is nothing like spreading the load.

That is true for work and it is true for campaigning.

We are part of a Community Energy Coalition that has come together to champion renewable energy co-operatives. Earlier this year, we published a review of some of the inspiring practice that is emerging, written by Becky and Jenny Willis – itself following a roundtable of members led by Pat Conaty on theme of co-operation in energy.

This ‘other’ coalition now numbers around two dozen civic society organisations, including the National Trust, National Farmers Union, National Federation of Women’s Institutes, the Church of England and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

The Community Energy Manifesto we have published, with the Co-operative Group, is a clear and practical agenda to follow, if Government were minded to do so.

And having talked through the manifesto at a coalition roundtable with the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, it is clear that the door is open. It was Ed Davey himself who recently said that he wants “to see nothing short of a community energy revolution in the UK”.

The most immediate challenge though is the Electricity Market Reform programme. With the kind support of Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the JJ Charitable Trust, we have completed an expert review of the impact of the reforms on the community energy sector, by Cornwall Energy. The answer? The changes will, as currently designed, hinder the emerging community energy sector.

More work is needed for a sustainable energy future for the UK.

Let’s hope that by working together, we can move faster.


No Costa, no cry

There is great news now from Totnes, the town where things happen first.

The No to Costa campaign in favour of local, independent coffee shops has won it’s first battle with Costa Coffee deciding against setting up shop in town.

I wrote about the campaign earlier this year, which has been an uplifting reminder that imagination and creativity are the most powerful tools we have for social change.

How can we now take the same spirit and rejuvenate independent coffee shops in the face of the big identikit chains elsewhere. Anyone for co-operation?

Postcard from Quebec

I have spent the last week at an uplifting Co-operative Summit in Quebec. This included nearly 2,800 participants from 91 countries – including a healthy presence from the vigorous co-operative sector in Quebec and Canada more widely.

A ‘future co-operative leaders’ programme ran alongside the official event. Plus the programme included a pre-conference on co-operative economics (to which I contributed) and the official summit.

There was a strong and welcome emphasis on understanding the co-operative experience worldwide. As part of this, a series of studies were launched over the event, all completed in partnership by different private sector professional service firms – some of whom, like McKinsey, have certainly not been advocates of co-operative models before:

IRECUS – Socio-economic impact of cooperatives and mutuals

IPSOS-UQAM – The Cooperative Movement: A global research study on perceptions towards cooperatives

McKinsey & Company – Global trends and the opportunities and challenges they present for cooperatives and mutuals

McKinsey & Company – Growth and development strategies for the cooperative and mutual business model

Ernst & Young – Enlightened co-operative governance: balancing performance with broader principles in co-operatives and mutuals

PWC – A worldmap of the agricultural cooperative movement and its critical issues

McKinsey & Company – Achieving the full potential of cooperative organizations – strengths, challenges and best practices

Deloitte – Funding the future: Emerging strategies in cooperative financing and capitalization

The declaration from the event was also a good reflection of the programme content and the inputs from these studies.

What emerged from the official conference was a strong sense of relevance and confidence in the co-operative model, with the welcome recognition provided by a series of external speakers.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School, though, provided a fourfold challenge to the cooperative sector, arguing that:

1. purpose ought to be our advantage but often we don’t communicate it internally and externally well enough

2. we are not leading enough on social innovation, even if our members ought to support these and they can lead onto commercial gains

3. co-ops need to join into emerging business partnerships around sustainable development

4. there are new ways to give voice to people and the co-operative movement needs to be at the forefront of the new opportunities.

Some of the debates that echoed through the programme are ones many in the field would recognise. Given the speed of market change, are we, as co-operative businesses, agile enough and alive to innovation? Do we plant a bold flag by positioning ourselves as alternatives to shareholder companies? … or recognise instead that what fires us up doesn’t necessarily work in the wider world beyond our memberships, where people just need to know who we are and what we do well.

Alongside some outstanding rhetoric and inspiring examples of co-operative action, the outstanding set pieces related to direct business challenges – the Danish farmer cooperative that felt it could not operate in a dozen countries on the back of membership equity from one and so is exploring how to balance member control with minority external capital; the Australian enterprise-owned co-op, Capricorn, that has changed it’s strategy as traditional car repairs comes under threat and, once it decided to move, had to change CEO as the first step on that journey; the delegation from Cuba, trying to plan for a new role for autonomous co-operatives in a more liberalised economy.

One comment which captured some of this was a quotation cited from Georges Fauquet (1873-1953), who said that “[…] too often, we observe to which extent a social movement cease being a movement when it cuts the umbilical cord with its utopias, dreams or even illusions.”

Luckily, when we come together as a sector, as diverse as we are, our instinct remains to be both focused on business and yet still weavers of dreams.

Love me do

The Beatles launched ‘Love Me Do’ 50 years ago today, playing it at the Co-op Hall in Nuneaton.

Just perfect.

Costa ‘n arm and a leg

If you are out and about and feel the need, there is better quality coffee now and more available than ever, with coffee shops on every high street. As a place to sit, or a place to talk, coffee shops can be good for community.

But behind the scenes, there are competing visions of how coffee shops relate to the local economy. In Totnes, the birthplace of the transition movement, this has erupted in the form of a campaign against national chains.

The background is that the South Hams District Council, despite objections, approved an application to build a Costa Coffee in Fore Street in the town. There are already over 40 independent stores selling coffee in town. Around one in five people have signed a petition to keep Costa away and this has blossomed into an active and creative campaign No to Costa.

Costa Coffee is now a vast and international chain. The company runs nearly 1,400 stores in the UK – making it bigger than Starbucks and Caffè Nero combined – and it plans to double the number of outlets it has over five years. As consumers, we spend half a billion pounds a year in Costa Coffee outlets.

But where does that money go? Spending money in a national chain like Costa is like putting an airmail stamp on it, because notes and coins fly out of the local economy – stripped out to fund a centralised business owned by distant investors.

Over the last five years, Co-operatives UK has been working in partnership with an inspiring alliance of local food agencies, such as Country Markets, FARMA, Plunkett Foundation, Soil Association and Sustain on a development programme called Making Local Food Work. We have assisted over 400 enterprises over that time through the work we have done on governance and legal advice – and that support is still open for another year.

As part of the programme, the charity CPRE looked at the extraordinary economic impact that local food has, through supply chains, employment and consumer loyalty – all meaning that more money is spent locally. In Totnes, they found that over 160 producers supply food and drink outlets in the town, the majority from a circle of five or ten miles away. Local food outlets generate around 300 jobs in store and around 700 jobs at suppliers – in total, ten per cent of local employment. Local sales were worth up to £8 million per annum.

Landmatters, for example, is a co-operative using permaculture techniques to farm a rich mix of salads, fruit trees and bushes, supporting local biodiversity.

Owens Coffee is an artisan, organic coffee roasters based in South Devon. They have offered the local campaign a hamper of coffee for the best image presented of why Totnes should say no to Costa. My favourite is below.

Greg Clark, Treasury Minister, may have it right when he said recently that “what Totnes does today, the rest of the country will do tomorrow.”