Co-operative jewels – the story of co-ops in the Czech Republic

 Working with Co-operatives Europe, I have had the chance to visit the coop sector in the Czech Republic this week.

It is a country I have loved for some time, having visited it many years before to write an article for the Financial Times on computing in the country. In those days, of perestroika, a second Prague Spring, technology was a mix of home grown and struggled imports from the West – the old 1980s Amstrad PCW on the one hand and a domestic creation I found, invented by an agricultural coop, that was faster, but heated up so much that it could be used to fry eggs.

The Czech Republic has a rare wealth of culture, writers, musicians and artists. It was home of the original Good King Wenceslas (although some bad King Wenceslases were to follow, you know what Kings are like). But the cultural hero is the stalwart, comic character the Good Soldier Schweik – someone who gets on with life despite all the worst accidents and circumstances.

The Czech Co-operative Association, Družstevní Asociace ČR, was our host – with my counterpart, David Füllsack. They have 1,242 member coops, through sector associations such as for agricultural, retail, housing and worker co-ops. Around 23% of farming, by land, for example is co-operative, whether on farm or through marketing beyond. This includes hops, milk, fruit and vegetables. Of course, history matters, particularly in a sector that grows from the roots. Just as the period of independence post 1918 was a flourishing period for the arts, architecture and music in the wider nation of Czechoslovakia (The First Republic), so it was for co-operation. 

In 1908 there were 99 housing coops in Bohemia and Moravia. By 1922, it was 1,236. Zdeněk Juračka, of the consumer co-operatives, told us that “the golden era of the consumer co-operatives was the First Republic. The worst was the communists, they nationalised one third of our assets and confiscated facilities, expelling members of the coops to remote areas.”

Co-operative housing is a common presence across the country, particularly for apartments, over half of which (56%) are in co-operatives – although there has been a steady stream of conversions to private ownership over the last twenty years. There are also ten co-operative schools and one Management Institute.

Granát Turnov is a coop formed when private goldsmiths came together in 1953 and is one of a number of manufacturing, or production, co-operatives (the oldest of which is a toy maker dating back to 1906). The coop is the world’s largest producer of garnet jewellery. It operates a mine in Bohemia, where the garnet jewels comes from, and sells across the world, with design and fashion awards to its name.

You can’t visit the Czech Republic and come away feeling just a little bit Czech yourself. It is a people and culture to admire, and to learn from.

Open to women?

To be a woman in the labour market in Iran marks you out, as for every one of you in a paid job, there are eight men. 

It was inspiring for me to meet one such woman this week who is part of the co-operative sector in Iran. In Iranian coops, the ratio is less uneven. For every one woman, there are three men. You can’t easily step outside of the context and culture you are in – it’s like building a boat while the stream is carrying you on. But the co-operative sector appears to be promoting equality with gentle persistence, giving a voice to women in practice, which is a kind of radicalism of intent and commitment to transformation over time that I can admire.

The same persistence seems to spreading in other co-operative contexts. Work by the United Nations COPAC Committee suggests that 75% of stakeholders of the sector worldwide feel that women’s participation is on the rise. In South Africa, women make up more than 60% of the members of all co-operatives. In Spain, there is gender equality among worker co-operative members. 

In Japan, women have long been core to the consumer coops, in part because of barriers to their participation in the wider labour market, and their leadership in a cooperative context is slowly opening up space for women’s representation more widely. I remember visiting the Seikatsu Consumer Co-operative some years ago, which helped to get women candidates onto the ballot – politics from the kitchen was one slogan.

The challenge of opening up leadership roles to gender equality has been one of the campaign goals of the UK sector initiative, The Co-operative Women’s Challenge. We think of democracy as an open system, but the workings of democracy can throw up subtle barriers. And patriarchy, whether overt or covert, in the form of unconscious bias, has a hold in the co-operative sector that is a denial of the very values of equality and openness that coops espouse.

In Spain, women perform 40% and rising of leadership roles in worker coops. We have exemplary women leaders in UK co-operatives, with less gender inequality by far than the wider corporate sector. Less inequality, but across the sector as a whole, not yet equality or close enough to that. We need the same persistence as the co-operative women of Iran.

  The election of a second successive female President of the International Co-operative Alliance days ago wasn’t because of her gender, but in following the wonderful Dame Pauline Green, Monique Leroux offers encouragement to many women across the sector. This is what I saw in Turkey around the Alliance election, when with Pauline, a leading member of a raisin producer co-op in Turkey came to shake her hand. She said “you have given me hope for years, and now I am meeting you in person, I can say thank you.”

Where’s Sid? The decline of ownership by the public

This time last week I was in Brighton, at a fringe event for the Labour Party Conference. This week, it is Manchester for the same for the Conservatives. 

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Thatcher’s name was used and abused at both events, but I was intrigued by the Chancellor’s reference to her when announcing the sale of state-owned shares in Lloyds TSB. In the 1980s, the privatisations were characterised by a push to widen public share ownership – “Tell Sid” was the advertising campaign that accompanied them.

There is no Sid today, nor even much of an aspiration to widen ownership – beyond pushing today’s bastardised grandchild of the right to buy (now in housing associations who have signed up, under pressure, to a voluntary deal, at the probable expense of tenants and the waiting list behind them in municipal council housing).

So, what has actually happened in the three decades since 1985, when Mrs. Thatcher launched her push to widen ownership?

The answer is in an essay I have co-written with a freelance researcher, Carina Millstone, as part of our core continuing 2015 communications theme of ownership. What makes coops different? Our ownership. What helps makes a difference in today’s business world? Sharing ownership. 

Unfinished Business: the ownership agenda thirty years on  is the detailed essay published by the think tank ResPublica and I describe the some of the results on the Huffington Post online business site just up.

The short answer is that, in relative terms, business ownership has narrowed. Family ownership is resilient and co-operative and mutual ownership is a star performer when it comes to spreading ownership. But individual share ownership has declined, while home ownership is at the same level it was in 1985.
Economic Ownership Index
It has been fascinating to look at the poor quality of data over time on ownership. House prices and share prices rise and fall, prominent in the news, and with them rise and fall the hopes and fears of many. But when it comes to who owns what, and whether more people or less people do, there are far more assumptions than evidence in play.

It ought to be a concern of some significance that, in relative terms, we are seeing a decline in ownership by the public, rather than its widening. Sid lost out and it is time to organise to change that before another generation passes.

Community Economic Development – grassroots dreams, hopes and progress

Sheffield is a city long shaped by economic change, and a new grassroots programme aims to refresh this dynamic through reinvestment in arts, crafts and the local economy.

The Portland Works in Little Sheffield was the first factory in the world to make stainless steel cutlery, then sold around the world. Today, in pockets of the building, you can still find metal trade micro-businesses that use some of the original machinery and tools that have been there since the beginning. In recent years, in the form of a co-operative and community benefit society, they and others have come together, to renovate the building, while safeguarding the heritage. The aim is to return the works to its original purpose of manufacturing, and linked crafts and arts, with an explicit goal of supporting small businesses and benefitting the wider community.

Small steps - the success of a community share issue at Portland Works has led on to a wider strategy for local economic renewal in Little Sheffield

Small steps – the success of a community share issue at Portland Works has led on to a wider strategy for local economic renewal in Little Sheffield

In this urban part of central Sheffield, Portland Works has come together with Regather, a trading co-operative and social action centre nearby which leads a number of community projects and enterprises.

They are working together to promote a habitat for local independent enterprises to grow and thrive together, including access to work and training.

This is one of fifty fledgling community economic development initiatives underway within the Government’s DCLG Community Rights programme. The communities are located across the country – from Penzance, to South Shields, Carlisle to Great Yarmouth This link takes you to a map of them across England.

The programme is a new one and is led by Co-operatives UK, working in close partnership with New Economics Foundation, Locality, Community Development Finance Association and Community Development Foundation – with encouragement from wider experts such as the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Transition Town REconomy Network.

In line with the core ideas of community economic development – a model of local economic renewal that has a strong heritage and one that is quite distinct to municipal- and investor-led regeneration. They are looking at a range of bottom up models, described in our report by David Boyle of the New Weather Institute, Ultra-Micro Economics – ranging from employment and skills, enterprise development, local purchasing, anchor organisation local procurement, social enterprise and investment, high street retail, urban regeneration, food and agriculture.

In Broughton in Salford, for example, one of the most deprived wards in Greater Manchester, the community co-operative Involved is connecting up local shopkeepers and business owners to work together to strengthen the local economy.

In Selby in North Yorkshire, the focus is on making a step change in the distribution and sales of local food. The Vale of York has fertile land, cooler summers and milder winters, but the food is all shipped off for sale elsewhere – and only a quarter of local people eat their five a day. Led by the community business, Tadcaster and Rural CIC, the hope is to use a rich, local asset to improve local jobs and local health.

It is still very early days in the programme, focusing on planning ahead, and despite increased talk of devolution within England, the value of community economic development is not one yet recognised and championed by its natural allies in the municipal, small business and third sectors. We want to change that. We will be publishing a guide, for example, through the New Economics Foundation, and putting a resource bank online drawing on worldwide practice, led by the Community Development Finance Association.

These and other materials will all be accessible here.

…or, if you are passing by, have a look for signs of hope in the faces, the shops and the works in Little Sheffield.


It is a great day for fair trading today as we see the UK launch of the new model Fairphone. 

Available to pre-order through the Phone Co-op, I have put my order in already, having exhausted an old smart phone and probably been a little exhausted myself by all the niggling accounts of human rights abuses and environmental challenges that the big names, Apples and Samsungs, suffered since I first went smart in my handsets.
Since pouring over drafts myself of what Fairtrade standards for coffee and tea could be twenty five years ago, it has been inspiring to see the rise of what we might just call fair-preneurialism – a movement of people and a passion for business that has led to fair footballs, fair finance, fair trade and fair phones, products that are touching every part of our lives.

It is probably a safe prediction to say that any product or service could be open to fair innovation. All it takes is a recognition that while modern economies create distance between consumers and producers, with complex supply chains and intermediary links. Because we know less about the hands that laboured to begin with, it is inevitable that some people will be prefer to see and pay to secure some form of assurance that no-one has been lost out badly in the process.

It is also true that: life is far too short to turn shopping into a research PhD on ethics; that there are more ethical consumers in spirit than in practice; that products and services have to be good before they can succeed by being ethical; that we want companies to make ethics simpler for us, acting as choice editors; that being niche and fair shouldn’t distract from action to drive out what is mainstream and unfair. As I have said before of fair trade, the fact that you can’t do everything doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to do something.

 Give us bread and give us roses, but please Lord, make them fair.


The magical story of England’s new music co-operatives 

fluteThe teaching of music has been a casualty of school cuts and policy neglect in recent years, but some music teachers are taking matters into their own hands, by forming music co-operatives in response.

Jane Parsons teaches strings and she was one of the many dedicated and passionate music teachers in Wiltshire to be told in February this year that they faced the sack.



Jane tuned for support from the Musicians Union, who sent across one of the founding members of a music co-operative in Swindon, David Barnard. Jane and fifteen others were inspired to do the same, forming a co-operative to support each other and sell their services. The Salisbury Area Music Co-operative incorporated on August 1st and I met Jane, and colleague Anna, yesterday, in their first trading week. It has been quite a year.

Over the last six years, up to a third of our 12,000 strong workforce of musical instrument teachers in schools have lost their jobs – a joyless spreadsheet austerity in a UK economy in which creativity matters more than ever. Alongside funding cuts, the imposition of zero hours contracts and reductions in pay are all having a devastating impact according to the Musicians Union, which represents more than 30,000 musicians, and is now encouraging teachers to band together in a bid to save the profession.

The union sees that co-operatives – businesses owned and controlled by their members who each have an equal share – can help maintain the provision and quality of teaching for pupils while also protecting the livelihoods of teachers.



The first music co-operative was in Newcastle, and has been operating since 1995. Sue Belshaw from the coop tells me that they have succeeded by building up an independent business, serving all ages and music ensembles across the Tyne and Wear, giving them a degree of protection from ever-changing national and local policy rhetoric and commissioning practice. They have taken matters into their own hands.

The Chair of Swindon Music Co-operative is Janet Hodgson, a piano teacher. The coop has fifty members now, up from twenty when it started. Music teachers in the education sector, she tells me, have always had a mix of income, including private tuition. The interest in music has never gone away, but the ability to pay for it has changed. Janet acts as the marketing arm of the coop, following up on suggestions from members and visiting schools.



“It is hard to be Chair, when you are not trained in business” she says. “But I know music and have become very good at asking for advice.”

In Gloucestershire, the Cotswold Music Tutors formed in June 2012 after the closure of the (peripatetic) music tutor service in Gloucestershire. Phil Storer and Cathy Hill set up Cotswold Music Tutors after consulting other tutors and agreeing that a co-operative model would be the best fit. From an initial group of 30 tutors, the group has expanded and report a steady stream of tuition requests from both schools and private enquirers. In 2013, they started to offer holiday music courses and, in March 2015, the first residential chamber music course, taking over St Briavels Castle in the Forest of Dean for a heady, busy and exhilarating few days.

The Milton Keynes Music Co-operative, formed by tutors such as Sarah Tomlinson, likewise offers both individual teaching and support for music groups, and aims to wrap training into the mix, so that it can assure continuing professional development for its members.



On the Isle of White, in a similar story to Jane and colleagues in Wiltshire, music teachers are looking to organise a co-operative in the face of redundancy. Marja is the backbone, someone who has been teaching music since 1967 and the kind of entrepreneur that every group needs – someone who gets things done quickly and affordably. At one time, she was running festivals, now, aided by a walking stick and fellow member Phil, taking on the billing, she is setting up the coop.

The experience of the longer-standing music coops, such as Swindon, Newcastle and North East Lincolnshire, is being put to good use to help newer co-ops form. David Barnard, a quiet and inspirational teacher himself, has prepared a new resource, published by the Musicians Union in concert with Co-operatives UK: Altogether Now – A Guide To Forming Music Teacher Co-operatives which is launched this week.




The numbers of people who are freelancers has risen to new heights in recent years and now account, on some estimates, for up to half of all new jobs. Good news for some, the downside for others is that that they risk isolation and lack the social protection of those in traditional employment.

There is a larger question about whether we individually or as a society value music and those with the skills and patience to nurture the ability of others. But part of the answer to that has to be a better voice for those who make a living in music, and for the music co-ops that allow them to find strength, voice and dignity by coming altogether.

Renewable energy rollback or community energy fightback?

All the signs are of a renewables rollback, a dramatic shredding of the framework that has developed over many years for clean energy.

Funding is being cut or removed – with no subsidy for larger solar PV, and now proposals by Government for a much meaner and faster shrinking Feed in Tariff, with (probably) no pre-accreditation.

On planning, the new directive from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in line with the manifesto pledge, will make it very hard to gain planning consent for onshore wind in most places, and impossible in others.

All this removes the much needed stability and assurance business needs in order to invest. It is shocking – back to the worst days of slot machine support for renewables. 

There will be a wave of campaigns to challenge this U-turn in energy policy, both in the domestic context and with the global Paris Climate Change summit coming up which is trying to build momentum for action, with the U.S. and China heading at last in a somewhat more hopeful direction.

You can sign and promote the Parliament petition urging a rethink of the FIT Review: – or get engaged in Friends of the Earth’s action on solar.

Even so, the door is still open for community ownership under this government, as Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said recently: “I do not wish to stand in the way of local communities coming together to generate low-carbon electricity in a manner that is acceptable to and supported by them, including through small-scale wind capacity.”  

Could there be a community energy fightback? 

Today marks the third Community Energy Fortnight, with a major event in Oxford co-hosted by Community Energy England and Co-operative Energy. And it is good to remember that there are successes or reasons to be cheerful that we have seen in the last 12 months. These include:

– the adoption of the Shared Ownership Framework offers an opportunity for community ownership of renewables at scale, and, genuine partnership between public and renewables industry, perhaps vital for our community ownership aspirations, for the renewables industry, and for our energy transition as a whole
– some progress in smoothing grid connection for communities 
-more local authorities becoming champions and partners 
– Scotland continues to make big steps forward in terms of policy environment and deployment of community owned renewables. Scotland has a different and much more enabling planning framework, and Wales will soon be different as well.
– as a sector, with Co-operatives UK playing a big role, we successfully made the case for continued tax suport for community investment in renewables; opening up Social Investment Tax Relief for the sector and winning a better transition from the Enterprise Investment Scheme – no mean feat considering we were asked to contemplate a scenario without any tax relief back in summer 2014.
– Following the contentious October 2014 guidance from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) the sector came together to critique, lobby, and campaign, and we now see some significant improvements in FCA policy in its most recent consultation; in particular a move away from low and arbitrary caps on interest rates.

But there is still a way to go. In relation to the regulator:

– the FCA needs to recognise that members’ common environmental needs and aspirations are met in energy co-ops
– the FCA needs to take a fair, considered and transparent approach when dealing with established societies, and during registration 
– we need the FCA to recognise and treat community benefit societies as mutual democratic social enterprises in a dynamic 21 century social economy.

And more widely, grid connection remains prohibitively complex and expensive for many communities – while direct supply and the true ‘prosumer’ energy co-op remains elusive.

So how do we move forward?

1. we need to restate the basic case for community ownership of our energy system, and for people to be partners in the renewable energy transition.

2. we need shared ownership to work at scale, so people own and benefit from renewable deployment on a big scale.

3. we need to secure from government support that brings in more of the public as partners in renewable energy generation, allowing the greatest possible carbon reduction, with most public support, and heading towards zero subsidy in the shortest possible time. 

Community and co-operative ownership at scale we see in Denmark and Germany has to be our inspiration and our focus. 

The fightback is on.