Peter Couchman is the Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is the organisation which promotes and supports co-operative and social enterprises in rural communities both in the UK and internationally. It provides support, networks and knowledge which offers practical solutions for rural communities that helps to create thriving places where people live and work now and in the future.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Plunkett rejoins the international co-operative movement

I had one of those moments in life when I was presented with the flag of the International Co-operative Alliance to mark the Plunkett Foundation rejoining. I suddenly realised that the last time I'd had an ICA flag in my hand I'd been a teenager standing on the roof of a windswept Co-op Department store in Brighton trying to get it to go up the flagpole as part of my Saturday job. There have been one or two changes in life since then.

The General Assembly of the ICA can easily take your breath away given the amazing range of countries there and the diverse forms of co-operatives that they represent. That diversity is due in no small measure to Sir Horace Plunkett who moved the motion at its inaugural meeting that the ICA should welcome all forms of co-operatives, not just consumer co-ops.

It was an exciting time for the movement. A real sense of hope and the election of a new president, Britain's own Dame Pauline Green. I am sure that she will bring tremendous energy to the role and will help the ICA to make full use of the International Year of Co-operatives in 2012 if the UN approves it next month.

Plunkett also had the pleasure of taking its seat on the International Co-operative Agricultural Organisation. To hear a fine presentation on agricultural co-operatives and climate change from James Graham of the Scottish Agricultural Organisations Society made the day worthwhile.

The event taught us that Plunkett still has an important role to play in international co-operation, particularly in the field of rural co-operative development. It may be a long way from the flagpole in Brighton, but the challenge is still as urgent.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The End of the Beginning

Rural community-owned enterprise is on a roll. A banner headline in the Sunday Telegraph proclaims "The Rise of the Archers Co-operative". The best part of a million people tune in to hear the residents of Ambridge discuss how to save their village shop through community ownership. In the real world, store openings are at record levels with many more in the pipeline. It's a great time to be at Plunkett, but let's not get carried away.

The boom in community-owned village stores is fantastic news, but we still have a long way to go in rural community-ownership. The shop is just one way a rural community can tackle its needs. There are many others: pubs, church space, transport, energy, broadband, housing, healthcare...the list is huge. But most of these are still only just emerging with a few brave pioneers developing models which have yet to catch on in the way that shops have done.

This week sees the formal launch of our project with the Community Transport Association on rural community transport supported by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, so there are steps being taken to broaden the range of enterprises. But it is still an uphill struggle to secure support for these emerging forms of community-owned enterprise.

So while we rightly celebrate the success of village shops, let's also redouble our efforts to support the next wave of rural community-owned enterprises ...and the next..and the next.

Finally, a solution to a social dilemma you face. You'll want to celebrate Social Enterprise Day on November 19th, but you also want to celebrate the fact that it is World Toilet Day as well. Problem solved: raise a glass to the incredible people of Lanreath in Cornwall who created their community-owned village shop from their local toilet (see the older blog "Convenience Retailing").

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Transition to co-operation

Every so often, you get to speak at an event where the energy coming off the audience makes you feel like you're standing in front of an open fire. I had that last week when I spoke at the Transition North event in Slaithwaite. The event was an ambitious one, bringing together not only transition supporters from across the North, but also a broad range of people from the co-operative movement. Sponsored by The Co-operative Group, it was a real chance to explore links between the two movements.

Following on from leading light in the Transition Towns movement Rob Hopkins and Christine Tacon, head of The Co-operative Farms, my role was to show the links between the two movements. To do so, I went back into co-operative history to show the similarities between the two. I cited Robert Owen's vision of Villages of Co-operation which would tackle social injustice at a community level and focus local production. I shared how Dr William King had taken this vision and turned it into something practical where the only way to achieve this was for small groups to come together and create these communities step by step - selling food to each other and using the profits to buy a shop, then using that profit to buy land to grow, then using that profit to create housing etc. All of this came to a head with the Rochdale Pioneers whose vision was not to create a shop, but a 'self-supporting home colony.'

Naturally, Sir Horace Plunkett's role also appeared, both with his vision for how to tackle change in society but also his warning to the US Government that its economic system would be undermined due to 'peak coal'.

But the presentation wasn't all history as I showed how co-operative models were helping to shape the local food movement through such diverse forms as community-supported agriculture, food co-ops, farmers' markets, Country Markets and village shops. Our next challenge was to bind these together into local food systems.

The points that seemed to hit home were:
1) The scale of the modern co-operative movement - a number of transitioners were struck by the statistic that co-operatives employ 10% more people in the world than all the multinationals and their subsidiaries put together (100 million against 90 million).
2) The image that transition and co-operation were not two different movement but simply two waves on the same ocean as generation after generation sought to create societal change through collective action.
3) My final point was to see co-operatives as a way of securing long-term solutions for the individual parts of a Transition community. Voluntary action alone could not create models which would last for generations, which is what we need. But the Transition approach could bind these together. The enterprises were the bricks and transition was the mortar.

I was delighted to trigger ideas from so many people from both the co-operative and the transition movement. I'm sure that the event will help build links that are so vital for everyone.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Mutual friends

I was delighted that Plunkett's work has been recognised in this year's Mutuals Yearbook, which case studied one of the village stores. The yearbook is produced by Mutuo, the impressive think-tank which promotes the role of mutuals.

This recognition was extended to an invite to speak on membership at the annual Mutuals Forum alongside the Eaga Partnership and Luton & Dunstable Hospital Foundation Trust. What could our shops teach such a gathering of major mutual organisations? Quite a lot was my argument.

The freshness and vitality of our recently formed mutual enterprises meant that their members were doing many things that some older mutuals may have forgotten that members could do. Things such as:
Belief - The members had to believe that creating and sustaining the enterprise was possible, often against impossible odds, because they believed that there was no alternative.

Enterprise - Village shop members were directly involved in shaping the fundamentals of their enterprise and often had to find innovative solutions to problems themselves.

Skills - Many of them shared their own personal skills with the enterprise as it was run on a volunteer basis.

Team work - They knew that they either supported each other or their mutual would fail.

Customer service - This was their main focus as they would stand or fall on it.

In the discussions afterwards, I responded to a query of whether this only applied to smaller mutual. No, was my response, because we had seen similar passion in campaigns on international issues, such as Jubilee 2000. We live in a world where more and more people expect to be able to shape the services they receive. People who saw such work as a campaign not a membership. The challenge to all mutuals was to find what it was that they did that could unlock such a passion in their own organisation.

So we are delighted to be recognised as part of the mutual sector and look forward to sharing our knowledge and learning from others within it.