Inner city heritage

“No-one will comprehend the mine of national wealth that is the children of Deptford.”

Started in Flood Street, South London above a skittle alley in December 1844, a propitious month, the Deptford Ragged School was started to serve the children of the area, between creek and river. The police reported it too dangerous an area to patrol, the “lowest of the low.”

This was thirty years before the state started to offer education to all children.

The original institution was one of a number known as ragged schools – serving children in rags and connected through the efforts of the Victorian reformer Lord Shaftesbury. It offered teaching and a wide range of other social activities for the community of all ages, from day trips to the hilly fields of Brockley through to a ‘slate club’ for local adults, as a mutual insurance pool in case of sickness.

By 1862, there were 160 children coming each day, 64 in the evening and 140 on Sundays. This was the ‘mine of national wealth’.

I’ve spent the evening with a volunteer archivist at the building, now the Bear Church in Deptford, London, hearing about the lives of local children over time. Katharine Alston has a PhD in museum education and is taking the stories that she finds, along with her volunteer team, largely churchgoers as were the founders, to the school close by today.

My wonderful friend Jani Llewelyn was a nursery school teacher at this school and it was thanks to her many years ago that a charitable trust was started to support education in Deptford and far away in Mozambique, the Merry Trust. When Jani, still young, was given a short time to live, her pension was commuted and entrepreneurially she bought her council flat, a stones throw away, and left them in her will for reinvestment in the community. The education work of the Deptford Ragged School Archive is funded today by her spirited activism.

Not all were model pupils, then or now, but often spirited. One nineteenth century report Katharine shows me is of a child who “came into school and rushed up the chimney and after rubbing his hair well in the soot, suddenly descended and, dancing round the room, shook the soot all over it.

But it served.

By 1886, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury commented that “there is no institution in England more worthy of support than the Deptford Ragged School.”

Values – the most overlooked quality of the world’s most successful organisations

Around the world, 85,000 credit unions in 118 countries improve the lives and communities of 274 million members.

So here is a question: what is the most overlooked quality of the world’s most successful credit unions?

The answer is their values.

They are not overlooked because values are seen as unimportant in credit unions. Quite the opposite is true; it is the values that typically explain why people are involved.

Values are neglected in many credit unions precisely because they are assumed and taken for granted, rather than nurtured and put to work.

It is as if a gifted up and coming footballer were encouraged to train and focus on their image rights and sponsorship deals, rather than their free kicks, their passing and their goals.

I have written a guide to values for credit unions published this week by the Centre for Community Finance, a European research centre inspired by the work of the Filene Institute in North America.

I am pleased to acknowledge how much I have learned in recent years from fellow members of the UK Values Alliance – originators of the World Values Day. There is something special, something deeply collaborative about the people who work as coaches and organisational development facilitators on values and culture.

Mark Hayes – an appreciation

That you can not simply buy fair trade products but also invest in fair trade producers is down to the life and work of Mark Hayes, who passed away just before Christmas 2019.

Mark was the founder of the fair trade financial co-operative Shared Interest, which provides trade credit and finance to producer co-operatives overseas. A distinguished economist, he was also a noted commentator on the work of John Maynard Keynes, completing a book on the work of Keynes which was launched at Robinson College in Cambridge on December 5th 2019.

Starting work in 1978 with the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation (renamed as 3i in 1984), Mark developed his skills as a banker. In 1987, together with Robert Oakeshott, the father of the Employee Ownership Association, he visited the Mondragón network of co-operatives in Basque Spain, a trip that helped to point him towards alternative economic options.

A few years later, Mark and family made the move up to Newcastle to start a new partnership with Traidcraft, looking to establish a finance arm for the fair trade pioneer. The direct link with Traidcraft fell through but Mark could see a way to move ahead with a new entity, what became Shared Interest. As he would tell the story to me, “it came to me that what we needed was not a bank but a financial co-operative, bringing people into an ongoing relationship based on values.

Starting in 1990, Shared Interest was run out of a spare bedroom in the house of Mark and Andrea, his wife, both working to make it more than a dream. What made the difference was a stroke of luck, although it could also be called providence – Mark was a man of faith throughout his life (and latterly holding the St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University, from 2014-2016).

Mark had undergone the exams required to become an authorised investment adviser under the financial regulations of the time, with his certification, under Nimloth Corporate Finance, covering his work for Shared Interest. He happened to sit in on a meeting in Edinburgh of the Scottish Churches Action for World Development, which highlighted that the way that the churches were raising funds for their own overseas investment activity was not lawful under those same regulations. What they needed was an authorised adviser and the solution was Shared Interest.

Shared Interest’s first office – a Newcastle bedroom with original sign still on the door

Registered as a society in March 1990, Shared Interest went on to attract £750,000 in share capital from 600 members in the first year. In 1991, Mark oversaw the first loans to fair trade businesses, channelling these in subsequent years through the allied networks overseas of the Ecumenical Development Co-operative Society, Oikocredit.

The vision wasn’t necessarily limited to fair trade – there was a wider vision at the start of the scope for finance to play a role in global justice. But fair trade has proved an effective market in which to make a difference.

The need for finance in fair trade starts with the needs of producer co-ops for working capital. To grow the beans that will become the chocolate bars or coffee packs sold in the UK takes time. To process and transport the produce takes time. Finance from lenders such as Shared Interest can cover the costs of all of this, repaid once the revenues come in from sales.

In simple terms then, what Shared Interest typically offers is advance payments on sales for fair trade co-operatives overseas. This is small scale, high risk lending and rarely available from mainstream banks, here or abroad. But as Shared Interest showed over the nine years Mark was Managing Director, it can pay its way.

Today, there are 11,700 members of Shared Interest, typically investing with patience, with average share holdings of around fourteen years. You can join online. In 2019, the society helped to make a positive impact on the lives of around 400,000 people across 55 countries.

An example is Azucena Quispe Rodas, a member of Cecanor, a coffee co-op based on the northern coast of Peru. The co-operative is playing a key role in promoting the role and voice of women in the coffee sector through its partnership Café Feminino.

Shared Interest has provided finance for Rodas and her fellow members at Cecanor for over six years, providing regular payments for their crops and enabling investments to help the farmers improve their yield on a sustainable basis. What she says is that the finance from Shared Interest “helps us to improve our farms, improve our food and also improve our homes.

Mark set out his approach to co-operative finance in a 2013 discussion paper for Co-operatives UK. He argued that “the co-operative principle of limited return on capital needs to be asserted clearly but also understood more imaginatively.

This is an appreciation of a life that I feel deeply. I am writing this on my way to represent Co-operatives UK at Mark’s funeral.

We first met in the early 1990s and I last saw him in November, courtesy of Patricia Alexander and the team at Shared Interest. Having finished his new book on Keynes, I was looking forward to talk with him on the growing agenda for and articulation of a green new deal, such as in the excellent recent book by Ann Pettifor.

There is a saying that I learned from a farmer co-operative last year that seems appropriate. When someone dies who has given so much to society, it is for society and not just the person that we grieve.

Happy new year, with a community cheer

2020 will be a big year for the UK co-operative sector and it has been a joy to start on New Years Day at Tafarn Sinc – the highest co-operative pub in the country.

In a remote Pembrokeshire village, with a closed train station across the path and a slate quarry in the hills, the zinc clad pub is a warm-hearted and eclectic model of community action. Threatened with closure in 2017, the local community rallied around to save the pub as a local facility.

“When we heard that the pub was being put up for sale, we didn’t worry at first,” says Hefin Wyn, from the neighbouring village of Maenclochog. But then, when no bidder came forward, he joined other members to save the pub through community ownership. The campaign was backed by Pembrokeshire-born actor Rhys Ifans and supported through Co-ops UK’s community shares programme. £400,000 was raised through shares and loans to save a pub first opened in 1876.

On New Years Day 2020, I found traditional dancing over the afternoon, followed by folk music, at least up to the start of Doctor Who on TV.

“We became members because we simply wanted to save the pub” explains Sheila, a community care worker who danced and played today. “As the pub was shaped by the community, so we got involved more.”

Dan works behind the bar, interested in how community ownership works and also a keen Manchester United fan. Peter, who I just missed after stepping out for a walk in the neighbouring hillside park, also community run, is distinguished academic on mining history… and takes photos for the society of music evenings.

Coming up in 2020 will be our activities around two points of history – the 150th anniversary of Co-operatives UK, of which Tafarn Sinc is a member, and the 175th anniversary of the original Rochdale Pioneers, widely recognised as the first modern co-operative.

Looking forward, we will be launching our next round of our Unfound Programme, supporting a new generation of digital co-operatives. And we are campaigning with the Employee Ownership Association for a step change in industrial democracy with our joint One Million Owners campaign.

In policy terms, it is welcome that one of the only financial commitments in the Conservative Manifesto for the December 2019 election was a promise of a new Community Ownership Fund. We will work collaboratively with partners to make the most of this opportunity, which mirrors the success under the last Government of the community housing programme, championed by the Confederation of Cooperative Housing and allies.

The example of community co-operatives such as Tafarn Sinc show what is possible when people come together.

In tough times, that is the enduring hope that co-operatives point to – that we are stronger together.