Friday, 27 February 2015

Our newsletter for February 2015 - SITR yourself in a comfy chair and have a read
Yes, it's newsletter time again. In this issue we look at how Community Benefit Societies are the new co-operatives (and can be just as co-operative as the old ones); how community energy in Somerset is more energetic than ever; we say hello to the all new Social Enterprise Network; and we welcome a brace of new Somerset Rules co-operatives in the arts and events sector.
Best of all, you can get a free Citizen Finance poster listing the best tools for funding social enterprise using people power... form an orderly queue, please.
Click on the picture for the download - or you can find it with all our other newsletters on the 'About Us' page.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Intentional communities with insufficient intent

Our colleagues in Bristol enquired recently as to the results of some work we did a year or so ago with a prospective housing co-operative; we had lost contact with the group, but we knew that they had been on the brink of registering. Alas, a word with the good people of Catalyst confirmed our worst fears; nothing had come of their vision or our labour.
This is not unfamiliar to us. So many times we have met with groups who seemed to have a strong, unifying vision; yet within a matter of weeks the energy is lost. So many seem to share the same dream: the big house, a few acres, employment on site in a workers coop, a few solar panels and a lot of permaculture... On every occasion, there are challenges paying the inflated costs of such rural properties, but with three or four families to share the load, there's usually a way. So what goes wrong?
Perhaps the neuroses of home ownership are part of the story; individual members hesitate over selling their homes, worry over whether they would ever get back on the housing ladder, look for ways in which funds could be released from the co-op in a hurry... Another problem is employment; making a living in any rural location is a challenge, and the early days of founding a community are the worst possible time to be starting up a small business. But often the biggest problem is in fact the heart of the project: the moral, political or spiritual purpose. At first it's a unifying factor, sure, but all too soon it becomes divisive. Turns out people cannot think or live exactly alike, no matter how hard they try. Every attempt at adopting rules, policies, creeds or manifestos ends in disillusionment.
So if you're toying with the idea of an intentional community, don't give up too easily. Don't try and design it from scratch - copy something that already works somewhere. And make it a place where everyone thinks constantly about the shared philosophy - but never, ever talks about it.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Community shares for co-operative development

Q: What's better than investing in a community co-operative?
A: Investing in a co-operative that supports and develops many more community co-ops.
Somerset Development Workers Co-op is the team that deliver advice and support work for Somerset Co-op Services CIC. They have been the backbone of the FEED project and have been involved in supporting many new co-ops both in Somerset and beyond. Now they have a chance to significantly step up activity, with opportunities from the EU, Big Potential, Power to Change, the Somerset Rules and new premises in Taunton. But it is going place huge demands on their financial resources - which is why an issue of community shares with EIS is essential. Download the offer document if you think you might want to join a committed band of supporters.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Automatic for the people: post work co-operatives

Are we seeing the end of work? We may have thought that automation had done enough by emptying factories of workers, but now the service sector too is seeing humans replaced by robots. More and more customer relations now takes place through websites or automated phone lines; basic design and preparation of documents can be done by computers, removing the need not only for secretaries but legal assistants and even architects. This is not, however, the leisure society that many had predicted - in fact, it is turning out to be a profoundly unequal society as more and more wealth flows to the owners of capital and less and less to those who rely on selling their labour. What does this mean for co-operatives in general, and worker co-ops in particular?
I don't think automation in itself is a bad thing; it relieves us of gruelling, mindless and soulless work. The problem is - as it ever was - the ownership of these new productive technologies (and let's not forget that includes software as well as hardware). Firstly, we need to get these tools financed by large numbers of small investors, along the lines of community shares; that way, the return on the investment can be distributed much more widely. Secondly, the investors should not be owners taking a profit share but supporters receiving a far rate of interest - the profit gets reinvested to support the community that depends on the business.
That community could still be workers; but as the number of workers declines relative to the output, the case for multistakeholder co-ops becomes stronger. The local community, customers and suppliers all have a valid stake, and can strengthen the accountability that makes community shares finance possible in the first place.
John Mills, writing in the Huffington Post, points out that a great deal of investment is going into the service sector in order to achieve quite modest returns based on incremental efficiency savings. He suggests that in fact, the biggest opportunity for new technology to boost productivity is in light manufacturing - small businesses making stuff using the latest plant. So why are we seeing so few workers co-ops starting up with investment in high quality plant? There are homespun cottage industries with workers but little investment, and there are community energy co-ops that have few if any workers but plenty of investment - surely they could learn from each other.
To give a practical example: expanded polystyrene is a significant part of the waste stream, and eminently recyclable. It can be ground up and bonded together in sheets for insulation, for example, using some suitable plant. And yet the nearest EPS recyclers to Somerset are in Plymouth and Salisbury. Look for a consumer recycling point, and the situation is even more ridiculous: you'd have to go to Arundel or Cornwall! So it isn't hard to spot ethical, sustainable opportunities to invest in productive plant for added value and profitability. We just have to start building entrepreneurial teams that combine the prospective workers with others in the local community.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Raising together: a social investment handbook

We are very pleased to announce that 'Raising Together', the handbook we authored jointly with our French colleagues in CRESS and CADES, is now available for download on this very website. Follow the link above marked 'Publications'.
Raising Together is important because we site community shares in a wider and an international context; because we point the way to further opportunities like Citizen Finance Partnerships; and because we learn from French innovations that have no equivalent here, such as the Cigales investment clubs. We also have some interesting findings from surveys of social investors in the UK. Well worth a read...

Friday, 30 January 2015

Do the FCA's new guidelines threaten community co-ops?

Guardian columnist George Monbiot has kicked off a small storm with claims that the new FCA guidelines for mutual societies, following on from the recent Co-op and Community Benefit Societies Act, has sabotaged the growth of the community energy sector. Is it true?
Mostly no, with a bit of yes. It is not the case that community energy societies have lost the ability to attract investors with decent returns on investment. Social Investment Tax Relief, which is taking the place of Enterprise Investment Scheme Tax Relief for community energy, is just as good. It can only be claimed by Bencoms, but that is not a disaster: as the approval of our model rules shows, they can be just as co-operative as co-op societies; they have an asset lock to frustrate carpetbaggers; and given that all electricity is pooled in the national grid, 'community benefit' does better describe their purpose.
But it is true that the FCA is sending mixed messages about limits on interest payments. A restatement of the law ('no more than is necessary to attract and retain investment') is apparently contradicted by repeated references to savings accounts rates. It is also the case that community co-ops are treated very poorly: as Bencoms, they can't use the word 'co-operative' in their name; and as co-op societies, they can't have non-material transactions alone with their members.
Our submission to the FCA (which incorporates much of the excellent Co-ops UK response) is intended to clear these points up. In the meantime, it's business as usual.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Calling all cyclists

Anyone who has ever wobbled on two wheels appreciates a good cycle shop. They've got the funny shaped spanners, the lycra shorts, and ten different kinds of cycle pump. They'll sell you a sit-up-and-beg or a sleek racer, and they won't just give it to you in pieces in a box; it'll actually work.
There are some great cycle-based social enterprises out there: cycle repair workers co-ops, Edinburgh Cycles Workers Co-op chain, and Roll for the Soul CIC (which is also a cafe) in Bristol. But in Somerset, the picture is more gloomy.
I've visited two cycle shops now that are closing, and there is a swathe of mid- to south- Somerset where substantial towns lack a specialist cycle dealer. Buyers for market town retail businesses are always few and far between, and years of underinvestment has made some a particularly unappealing proposition.
We always make the case for co-operative succession: workers, customers and the community banding together to buy out the proprietor, leaving a co-operative enterprise to deliver a valued local service in perpetuity.
But cycle shops are often run largely or solely by the proprietor, and the staff that there are may be more at home with a wrench and an allen key than with meetings and spreadsheets. They're going to need some help.
Could you be involved in building a chain of co-operatively run cycle shops - either as a customer or worker? If so, get in touch. With the numbers of people cycling rising steadily, there's an opportunity here.