Putting Co-operation at the heart of the community

21 07 2014

Across the country and across the political spectrum everyone agrees that building sustainable communities should be at the core of any initiative for social impact. Community cannot be imposed by government directive. It is an active condition reinforced by active membership with people choosing to identify with and support community values and purpose.

Throughout the last century, the model of community action has been one of volunteering and heavily reliant on grant-funding and individual philanthropy. This is not sustainable. As an entrepreneur of some 25 years standing, I believe that the key is enterprise. I see co-operative community enterprise as a real alternative to the market failures in the private sector and the continual withdrawal of funding from the public sector.

Community co-operatives are organisations set up to provide services to a particular community which use co-operative principles to guide their activities. Co-operatives help to organise and sustain social movements and the people in them and find expression in, for example, wholefoods, housing, credit unions, fair trade and renewable energy.

Community investment allows members of a community to buy shares in an enterprise that serves that community. It gives people a stake in the success of that enterprise. Common ownership puts the assets of the community co-operative in a similar relationship to its members as the village green is to the inhabitants of a village. Everyone has use of the asset but no-one person has title or claim and no-one person can dig it up and take it away.

The alignment of shareholders needs to the needs of the community enterprise promotes long-term sustainability over short-term profit-taking. At a time when many communities are faced with the loss of local amenities this change in focus is, I think, crucial.

And community shareholders are also far more likely to get involved; to become active supporters of the enterprise, and not just remain as consumers of products and services. Shareholders become customers and suppliers and employees and owners. It is a true stakeholder model and one that promotes sustainability.

The challenge to the Big Lottery Fund is to find ways to help the disadvantaged and disenfranchised to genuinely buy-in to their local community enterprises; to find ways of using the fund to enable everyone, not only those with their own capital to invest, to have shared ownership of community assets and community enterprises.

When members of the community become genuine stakeholders and not simply clients or service users sustainable community enterprise can flourish.

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