Beyond banks, bonds and bailouts

Beyond banks, bonds and bailouts
By Ed Mayo, The Guardian
29.11.11

Today we’re publishing the final part of our Community Enterprise Toolkit – a comprehensive set of guides and online resources for new and existing community enterprises.

Called Simply Start-Up, the guide has been produced as part of the Making Local Food Work project, which has helped over 1,200 community groups turn their ideas for a local, community owned business into a reality.

 

These community enterprises range from community supported agriculture projects in rural Gloucestershire to co-operatively run market gardens in East London.

 

Surveying all these enterprises, there is something very interesting about the growth of these community ventures.

 

Our work supporting community enterprises seems to have tapped into a real sense of activism amongst people who are more than happy to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, together.

 

We have, after all, built an economy based on a financial house of cards of banks, bonds and bail-outs. When you strip away the hype and hope, the only feasible alternative strategy is one that is based on bootstrap development of local enterprises such as these, making use of the three unlimited sources of wealth we have – people, ingenuity and renewable energy.

 

Dan McTiernan of The Handmade Bakery speaks for many community enterprises when he says of the co-operative bakery he helped set up in West Yorkshire: "The difference between producers and consumers is not so clear here as in other kinds of business. Our customers are co-producers. We never wanted to be bosses."

 

The incredible part of all this, as Peter Couchman of the Plunkett Foundation says, is that enterprises such as community owned shops, because they are owned by local residents, have a success rate of 97%, so much higher than conventional business start-ups.

 

As well as this huge growth in community food enterprises, new figures from Co-operatives UK show that the biggest growth area for the co-operative sector since 2007 has been enterprises working in the wider green economy – whether that’s communities setting up local renewable energy schemes or Co-operative Energy, a potentially large energy provider set up to rival the big six.

 

There has been a 24% rise in the number of member owned energy co-operatives in the last four years.

 

And more broadly, recent years have also seen a dramatic rise in the number of communities raising finance for an enterprise from the community itself, giving the community complete ownership of the business that affects them.

 

These community share issues are popular for food and renewable energy ventures, but also for football clubs, community shops and pubs, land, housing and regeneration. Since 2009 alone, nearly 200 communities have developed projects to enable local residents to own an enterprise in their area, and over 6,000 individuals have invested nearly £6m already.

 

Claire Waite of Busy Bee Toy Shop – a Manchester toy shop saved when the local community clubbed together and took it over – sums it up for me when she says: "it is important that members are involved in the co-operative. They are not just financial investors; they are actually involved in it".

 

The rise of communities doing things for themselves – whether it’s growing together on land, taking over their local pub or wrestling some control back over their football club – is one of the most striking responses to an economy based on a financial house of cards.

 

More than anything, it shows that people are frustrated by waiting for others to help their community and are transforming it themselves instead.

 

Ed Mayo is the secretary general at Co-operatives UK, the trade association for co-operative enterprises.