There are 6,169 co-operative enterprises in the UK and these are owned by 15.4 million members.
The number of co-operatives is increasing at a rate of 6% per annum, averaged over the last four years, which is represents around 250 new co-operatives a year – around one new co-operative every working day of the week.
There is also a diversity of co-operative forms, in the UK and overseas. There is continuous experimentation around key issues, such as the nature of membership, interest in community benefit and new models of financing. At the same time, they operate with a strong, local connection. The study we did to track what happened to money spent in a Co-op food store in Lincolnshire showed that every pound spent is recycled five times before the last penny leaves the local economy.
Earlier this year, we commissioned a draft working paper on the business advice needs of co-operatives. The paper – What are the business advice needs of co-operatives Working Draft – is neither formal nor our view but it provides for an interesting and diverse set of comments on how the co-operative sector can be further supported in the years to come.
I have set down my own views in a speech today for the Co-operative Enterprise Hub on what I see as the seven lessons for co-operative development:
- Go with the flow
The growth of the sector is organic and is shaped most significantly by the commercial success of the largest co-operative enterprises.
- Start next to success
It is clear that co-operatives in the UK are not, and never have been, spread evenly across the economy. They tend to cluster in various ways, and successful co-operatives are even more clustered.
- Focus on excellence
There is a confusion of brands, in terms of social enterprise, mutuals, employee ownership and co-operatives and more to do to work in an inclusive way across these communities of interest and action and to project co-operatives as a model of excellence for delivering what these set out to achieve rather than somehow protect our turf as an alternative to them.
- Join up the delivery
There is more demand for advice, including paid for and peer advice, particularly on co-operative matters than is felt to be available.
- Think sectors
The greatest success has been seen in sectors where there is a need and a model that is developed and championed by a sector development body.
- Make it easier to do the right thing
There are also horizontal changes, such as understanding of the co-operative option, which have to be tackled.
- Harness innovation
Tough times are ones in which innovation is more important than before, as a source of new commercial value.
Of course, the story of the Co-operative Bank looms large over the sector, as something that can impact our reputation – but there are six thousand and more independent co-ops and mutuals trading well in the wider world. There is also a world of opportunity out there over the next period for growing co-operatives even more than today:
- The Evergreen Initiative in Cleveland, USA, launched in 2007 shows how to renew a local economy in a bootstrap way.
- The Wales Co-operatives and Mutuals Commission can set out a new agenda to set the pace for the UK as a whole.
- In Italy, co-operatives get tax relief and pay the money instead, of around 3% of surplus, into funds for co-operative development fund.
- In a few countries, co-operatives have a dominant role in the economy. In Finland, the co-operative sector is said to account for 21% of GDP, in Switzerland 16% and in Sweden 13%.
- In countries, such as Portugal and Denmark, there are national programmes for the creation of young people’s co-operatives. Here, over one million young people are out of work. In 2014, we will be asking for your help to search for self-help, co-operative solutions for young people.
We have high hopes and ambitions for our model of business. If we do things right and do them together, there is no upper limit to what can be achieved through co-operation.