There has been plenty of talk recently, not least in the pages of this magazine, of community wealth building (CWB) and its potential to improve the lives of working people. From Portland, Oregon to Preston, England, the movement has been championed as a way to bypass apathetic national governments and achieve socialist gains through municipal means. As a result, CWB has reached a near mythic status amongst leftists the world over.
For all the discussions around anchor institutions, in-house services, and community ownership, the humble co-operative has often played second fiddle to the ambition of community wealth builders up and down Britain. Once considered a cornerstone of the labour movement along with trade unions, faith in the transformative power of co-operatives has waned, and they are now sometimes seen as the preserve of bourgeois organic food shops and hippie homemade candle sellers—although some, particularly in the tech sector, have sought to shed this image.
Now, some councils are looking to co-operatives as a new front in the development of the CWB movement. The Labour-led Islington Council is one such group, and has taken the bold step of launching Cooperate Islington (CI), a development agency assigned the task of nurturing and investing in the development of new local co-operatives with the goal of kickstarting a co-operative economy in the borough.
Cooperate Islington is different for two reasons. First, the budget for investment, set initially at £75,000, is large for a project of this kind. Second, rather than following the current trend for tech co-operatives, the project will be focusing explicitly on the ‘foundational economy’ in areas such as childcare, adult social care, education, housing, utilities, and food supply, as well as traditional trades like plumbing and building. Lead partner Outlandish is a tech co-operative which mostly builds websites and data tools for charities, NGOs, trade unions, and academic institutions, and it is joined by five other partners: Hackney Co-operative Developments, Principle Six, Stir to Action, Co-operation Town, and Co-operatives UK.
The main goal of CI is to set up a long-term Co-operative Development Agency with its own governing body and membership, as well as providing grants from £500 to £20,000 to new or early-stage co-ops. The partners will provide mentoring and training, as well as access to an affordable workspace in Finsbury Park, run by Outlandish. CI also intend to go beyond co-operatives to work with ‘anchor institutions’ and other big buyers in the borough, too, to help make their supply chains more local and more co-operative—so that Islington co-ops will have a ready-made market to enter.
All this sounds quite impressive: but why co-operatives, and why this borough? What do co-operatives actually mean for working people in Islington?
Polly Robbins, lead coordinator for CI, feels that the answer is quite simple. It’s the same reason that co-operatives were first invented: to provide working people with access to decent work, food, housing, and other services through collective ownership of the local economy.
Surprisingly to some, Islington as a borough contains neighbourhoods which are among the poorest twenty percent in England. Around a fifth of households are without work, or ‘income deprived’, and many more experience in-work poverty. While this is not a situation unique to Islington by any means, the level of income inequality is stark. Islington Council and their partners see co-operatives as a step towards tackling these issues head on. Outlandish, for their part, don’t see themselves as doing anything new: instead they are picking up the torch after years of co-operatives falling by the wayside in favour of outsourcing and private business.
What they are doing, however, is attempting to fill the role of an ‘investor’ and advisor by tackling a significant barrier to the UK’s co-operative economy. Unlike other countries like Norway, where nearly forty percent of the population are co-op members, the regulatory framework in the UK is very much geared toward private business, and access to funding for new co-ops sparse. As such, they often fail to get off the ground. Outlandish intend to remove this hurdle by using the Co-operative Development Agency as an investor and incubator.
Despite varying levels of support for co-operatives on the left, most Tribune readers are likely to at least feel they are a positive step forward. However, for the sake of argument, it’s worth noting some stats. Compared with standard private start-ups, co-ops are twice as likely to survive the first five ‘difficult’ years of existence. Regions where co-operatives generate a large share of GDP are reported to be among some of the most socio-economically equal in Europe. This relative equality is achieved through democratic decision-making in the workplace, as well as collective ownership of the means of production among members.
With this in mind, inspiration isn’t difficult to find. Embedded within municipal movements, they span from Barcelona and Emilia-Romagna to Preston and Plymouth. On a wider scale, there is the Welsh Co-operative Centre, established in 1982 as a co-operative development agency for Welsh communities, which has had successes in both the digital and traditional ‘foundational’ economies. In all these examples, the intention is often for co-operatives to fit into a wider CWB movement, which in Islington already includes the building of new council homes as well as Community Municipal Investments to support green infrastructure.
But you don’t have to look internationally. Other co-operatives in the foundational economy already exist within Islington, including the Islington Community Housing Co-operative and the Islington Food Partnership. One particular success story is the Wings worker co-operative, an ethical food delivery service based in Finsbury Park, which brings together disillusioned precarious workers from the delivery sector. Wings was started by Rich Mason, a former Deliveroo rider, who in the process of setting up the co-operative used the aforementioned workspace run by Outlandish and funded by Islington Council.
Islington appears to provide fertile ground for a co-operative network, which is lucky, because their aims are ambitious: CI is expecting to work with a minimum of ten new co-operatives, the majority of which they hope will be trading by the end of the year, with at least one fulfilling a contract with a local anchor institution in that time. Polly tells me they are quietly confident: having launched just over a month ago, they have already received twenty-five expressions of interest and twelve full applications from organisations and individuals working in areas as diverse as adult social care, art therapy, food markets, food co-ops, fashion upcycling, and training provision. In the future, Polly hopes you will be able to walk through the leafy streets of Islington and physically recognise the impact of Cooperate Islington on the high street.
CI is a bold project, attempting to address some of the key issues of our times through the old model of the co-operative. Whether they will be successful is difficult to say; it’s not the first time co-operatives have been touted as an answer to in-work poverty, lack of workplace democracy, or a paucity of collective ownership—but it is a well thought-out project with significant support, and buckets full of hope.