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.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Localism & Mutualisation: time to learn from the 19th century

The Coalition Government has the opportunity to learn from a 19th century co-operative mistake or to limit the opportunity that its Big Society presents. At present we have a Government committed to the mutualisation of public service and localism bringing more community control, with the two being developed separately.
In the late 19th century, the rapidly expanding Co-operative Movement went to war with itself over the role of worker co-operation. One side wanted to see the new factories as worker owned, the other saw consumer co-operation as the only true way forward. Sadly, both lost out in the conflict, leaving a movement divided and less diverse than many of its international counterparts. It is only in recent years that serious attempts have been made to find common ground between the two camps.

What the Government needs to learn quickly is that these are not two separate initiatives, just as the very early co-ops drew no distinction. Mutualisation will only succeed if there is genuine engagement with local communities including them having ownership where relevant. Localism needs to include enterprise and worker co-operation has a vital role to play here. The Big Society needs to see this connection or pay the price that the Co-operative Movement has done for its 19th century error.

Monday, 18 October 2010

A mutual solution for the Post Office?

Fear of crime in rural areas is high, yet actual crime is lower than most urban areas. By the same token, fear of losing the local Post Office is high even though the network closure programme is long over and Post Office Ltd has been working hard to build a modern network that can meet rural needs. Even so, the fear remains.

The Government's announcement on the future of the Post Office last week will have triggered that fear again. Yet its plans offer a real opportunity for rural communities. It has stated that the Post Office will either remain under state control or become a mutual. Plunkett's position on mutualisation is to judge each by how genuinely mutual it will be and to challenge if it isn't. In the case of the Post Office, it looks good so far. We see clear criteria to ensure a balance of interests and a real opportunity for community-owned shops to have a voice at the highest level.

We'll be urging all communities that want to protect their postal services to engage in the consultation to ensure that the final outcome is as mutual as the draft bill intends. Genuine ownership of the postal services, so vital to village life, could turn that fear into pride.

Monday, 4 October 2010

An end to an irrational fear of irrationality?

It was great to spend time on Saturday evening with Tom Webb from the Masters of Co-operative Management at St Mary's University in Canada. Tom has been one of my great inspirations for over a decade now. His work on Marketing Our Co-operative Advantage (MOCA) led to the creation of much of the work at Oxford, Swindon & Gloucester Co-op. Tom went on to create the Masters programme at St Mary's and its sister programme the Center for Excellence in Accounting and Reporting for Co-operatives. In all this work, Tom has been relentless in asking the question "I know how this works in mainstream enterprises, but how does it work at a co-op?". He has applied this to every area, from marketing to accounting.

To me, our conversation had the feel of light at the end of the tunnel. We have both spent our lives trying to convince managers that acting as a co-operative is the only rational approach to running a co-operative. This is approach has often been dismissed by managers who sought to slavishly follow big business ethics. Our way was seen as somehow wooly and less rigourous. Tom saw the credibility of a co-operative approach as being vindicated with co-operative economics now being given three nobel prizes in recent years. I saw the supposed irrationality of our approach being vindicated through our rapidly growing understanding of behavioural economics, in which so many of the levers of change were strengthened through co-operative action.

So we spent a pleasant evening, together with the Program's Director, Larry Haiven, exploring the bridge that was being built between the two. Ten years on and still inspiring me.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Time to reflect

The distinct lack of posts from me over the last few months has been a reflection of the hectic life at Plunkett post-election. A few weeks back, I was given a chance to reflect on this at the excellent Futures North conference in Leeds. I explored what our experiences of engaging with the Coalition Government on the Big Society had been like so far.

It probably surprised a few that I had some positive things to say. In particular, I highlighted its willingness to address the barriers that stand in the way of communities developing co-operative enterprises. This barrier removal agenda was across Government and at all levels. It should be commended and supported.

But I also highlighted the current design fault in Big Society thinking, namely its inability to recognise that communities do not, and should not have to, reinvent wheels every time they want to solve a problem. This sharing of ideas and best practice has always been a vital part of community development, yet the Government was still struggling to appreciate the role that infrastructure organisations play in helping communities to solve problems faster and more effectively.

The Co-operative Movement has known this since its early days. I cited Mondragon, Quebec and Davis as examples of how that willingness to support had marked the upward surge of the Movement. But it also gave a challenge to co-operators, for it required us to act rather than waiting for others. The Co-operative Enterprise Hub is a great example of a co-operative doing just that. I also cited our own reaction to the Government's cancellation of the Community Pub Support Programme. Our approach had been to bring together other co-operators who would have supported the original scheme and to agree together that we would support every one of the 82 communities that the Government had turned its back on.

This co-operative approach to life would not only make the Big Society real, it might also help to build the Co-operative Movement we dreamt of.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Community retailing North and South of the border

It was a huge pleasure last week to go up to Scotland for the AGM of the Community Retailing Network. CRN has been doing great work in Scotland to support community-owned since 2004. We've been discussing some time about how CRN and Plunkett could work closer together and last week was an important step forward. I joined its board together with our trustee John Don and we hope that our members will put a CRN Board member onto the Plunkett Board at our AGM.

There is tremendous potential benefit for both countries. Although both have community-owned shops, they are two quite different traditions. Scottish shops tend to be larger and further away from the competition, with the logistics of this often solved by a close working relationship with the Co-operative Group. English stores are more numerous and will often face strong local competition. This has often resulted in some leading edge retailing and marketing to create a real co-operative difference.

Each can learn from the other and it is going to be fun having time to explore this together.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Up for the Climate Challenge

It was an exciting day last week when the Making Local Food Work conference in Manchester saw the launch of the new report "Local Food and Climate Change".

Everyone involved in local food has had to put up with years of being told that research showed that our contribution to tackling climate change wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. Some even claiming that multiple retailers were better placed.

The report throws down a challenge to the sector that we can make a huge difference, but only if we focus on what needs to be done.

But the challenge to policy formers is even greater. They need to recognise the community action is one of the building blocks for tackling climate change. They need to see that we are better placed to bring people together by changing their views one community at a time.

And, at long last, the local food movement can hold its head up high on what it can do through the amazing range of people, projects, enterprises and communities that are part of it.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Three tests for mutualisation

With all the main parties open to mutualising public services, one of the challenges in the near future could be to decide which services are best for mutualisation. From a Plunkett perspective, our experience suggests that there are three tests that should be applied to create a shortlist. These are:

1) Is there a clear problem to be solved by the mutual? The public and politicians like mutuals that solve problems. Village shops, pubs, football clubs etc have all shown that it is easy to grasp what the problem they are solving is.

2) Is there public support for solving this problem? The test is whether the area to be mutualised is something that the average person will see the logic and benefit of.

3) Is the model simple to understand? The solution needs to be one that it is clear to all how it will operate and why.

Once these three tests have created a shortlist, there are a whole range of other factors that will come into play to ensure that long term sustainable businesses are created. But any incoming Government would be wise to look at the big picture first.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

One year on

It's been a while since I've celebrated a first birthday, especially when it is my own. But today marks one year as Plunkett's chief executive for me.

It has been an incredible first year, seeming both very long and flying by at the same time. It has also been quite an amazing year. We seen the community-ownership of village shops enter the mainstream with around 10% of closures being prevented. We've been given a credibility beyond logic by our appearance on The Archers, not to mention most national newspapers.

This way of solving problems has widened out with the new community-owned pubs and community transport with others in the pipeline. Our work with Community Food Enterprises is certainly one to watch.

It has also been a year of re-establishing old friendships and making some new ones with other organisations. I can't name you all, but I'm grateful to each and every one of you.

If there is one part of the work that has shaped the last year, it has been the humbling experience of visiting the actual enterprises that we support. Seeing what they have achieved and realising how much more could be achieved has not only made this year such a pleasure, it is also what will drive me on in the coming year.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Time to celebrate

The Plunkett Foundation will be putting all its enthusiasm (and that's a lot) into Britain's first Co-operatives Fortnight in June. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, it is long overdue. America has a great month long celebration and Canada has as Co-op Week. But Britain has done little to celebrate the impact of co-operation apart from a few International Co-operative Day celebrations (including some fetes, galas and bunfights which showed very little that was international and even less that was co-operative).

Secondly, there couldn't be a better time to go on the front foot to show that there is an alternative. We, along with many other co-operative organisations, are seeing a surge of interest in co-operative solutions.

Finally, Plunkett is keen to participate to make the point that some of the most dynamic new co-operatives are coming from rural communities and it is time that the Co-operative Movement recognised them.

Many years ago, I remember a worldly wise co-operative manager lamenting that the problem that co-operatives had was that they were always one step away from being fashionable. In June this year, we'll be helping to tale that step.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A new co-operative value?

It was a great pleasure to welcome Iain Macdonald, Director-General of the International Co-operative Alliance to Oxfordshire last week. Iain's co-operative path has been criss-crossing with mine for more decades than we both care to remember.

One of the passions we share is the frustration that so many of our British colleagues seem to believe that the founding of the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 in Britain means that the British have no need to learn co-operation from other countries. Nothing could be further from the truth and Plunkett has been making that point for 91 years. The reality is that no one country has got it right. We can all learn from each other. In my recent talk in Sheffield I cited Quebec, California, Spain and Jamaica as four places that Sheffield could learn from (I also think that many places could learn from Sheffield).

Perhaps we should start a campaign to introduce a new co-operative value, humility, so that this movement, so rich in ideas around the world, can learn at long last to learn from each other.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Hurry please it's time (for co-operative pubs)

One of my excuses as to why blog posts have been thin on the ground lately became visible last week when Pubs Minister John Healey announced that he was asked the Plunkett Foundation to lead a £3.3m programme to create 50 new community-owned pubs.

This is great news for community-ownership and for communities faced with pub closure. We seen how community-ownership of village shops has gone from strange idea to the way rural communities choose to tackle shop closure. About 10% of village shops that would have closed now end up being run by their community as viable businesses. We hope to create a similar movement for pubs.

What we also love about the programme is that it was only made possible by linking together a range of co-operative organisations, such as Co-operatives UK, Co-operative & Community Finance and the co-operative development bodies.

CAMRA, the campaign for real ale, has been quick to recognise what a tremendous opportunity this is for its members and its CEO Mike Brenner has said "we are delighted to be involved in this support programme to make community ownership of these essential local services a reality for many." The support that we've had from the Office of the Third Sector in the Cabinet Office has been superb and it has said that the programme "will act as inspiration to a range of communities, and increase awareness of social enterprise, and mutual approaches to self help within communities."

We are also looking forward to working alongside the other two strands supported by John Healey, business advice to publicans by Businesslink and support for pub diversification by Pub is the Hub.

These are exciting times. Details of the scheme are still being finalised, but you can get all the latest information and find out how register if you have a potential pub here. Who knows, very soon your local could be under new ownership - yours.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Ahead of their time

I had the great pleasure of visiting Berrynarbor Community Shop in Devon recently. What struck me was how forward thinking they had been when they were formed in 2004. Three aspects stood out for me.

Firstly, their use of community shares as a major funding source was several years ahead of its time.

Secondly, the deal they struck between the owner of the old shop owner and the council is still ahead of its time. This gave them four years to show that a community shop works and plan a larger store or to have proved that the idea didn't work, then either way to vacate the shop which was then allowed to be converted to housing. Right to Try at its best.

Thirdly, they were great community marketers. Whenever someone moves into the village, they receive a welcome pack, urging them to invest and volunteer in the shop. This has meant that the level of investment has continued to rise.

Berrynarbor is certainly one to watch.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

A co-operative lesson from Scotland

I've just been given a fascinating insight into Scottish agriculture with a study tour laid on for me by the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society. SAOS are a first rate developer and supporter of co-operatives with a proven track record. The visit introduced me to a wonderful range of farmers and producers who not only could clearly see the benefits of co-operation but also saw that unlocking value was the route for them to ensure an agricultural future.

Borders Machinery Ring was a great example of how co-operation could generate real savings for farmers when a co-operative is focused on what it can do for its members. Scott Country Potato Growers showed what a small number of growers could do by processing their own product and how its members could see all their agricultural needs met by supporting a range of co-operatives. Haddington Farmers' Market had a passion for local food. Scottish Shellfish had a stunning range of clients and a passion for quality.

Whilst England has some great agricultural co-operatives, I left with the feeling that Scotland was closer to achieving a widespread belief in the difference that co-operatives can make. I'm sure that this is due, in no small part, to the central role of SAOS in supporting directors, chairs and chief executives to improve constantly their understanding of how to make a successful co-operative.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Community Food Enterprise

It is wonderful what a diverse range of enterprises are playing a role in shaping the local food sector. But it is also a source of confusion as people of struggle to make the connection between, for instance, community supported agriculture and a farmers' market.

So I was interested to see a US attempt to bring these all together under the banner of Community Food Enterprise. The project looks at such enterprises around the world and makes a powerful case for what they can achieve. With funding from both the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it has certainly attracted support. They define a Community Food Enterprise as being an enterprise, being involved with food, having local ownership (defining this as 50% plus) and being locally controlled. I'm sure that many of us would season this definition to taste, but it is a good starting point.

The report covers a wonderful range of enterprises around the world. The most striking is the Cabbages & Condoms restaurant in Thailand, but many others are even more co-operative.

The report makes an inspiring read about what can be achieved and, equally important, understood if we can find a common language to talk about food and community enterprise.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Quick off the mark

Congratulations to the Rural Services Network for being so quick of the mark in launching its manifesto on the first working day of the New Year. It makes fascinating reading to see the wide variety of needs identified by the Network's members, including ourselves. It also shows the huge challenge that whoever forms the next Government will face given the state of public funding.

The challenge with a manifesto is that they always look lopsided as they have to be about what the Government should do, when we all know that life if never as simple as that. Plunkett is an inspiring place to be because we see the power that ordinary people can unlock by deciding what they can achieve together rather than waiting for Government.

The Manifesto has, in my view, captured the vital link between these two positions. It has a strong commitment to support community-led planning. The work of so many rural community councils in developing this approach has been one of the inspirations in rural development in recent times. Done well, it helps all to see what needs to be done and who is best placed to do it. The more plans that link community desire with community ownership and social enterprise, the broader the range of issues we will all be able to tackle in 2010.