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Co-operative Community Development. The myth of Principle 7?

Arguably the “mix” of ‘self help and mutual aid’ has made co-operatives an international force for good with 100 million people around the world employed by co-operatives, whilst 800million are members. English pubs rescued from closure by local communities clubbing together to purchase failing businesses and even football fans having their beloved clubs owned by them. Co-operative solutions, developing and protecting, sharing profits and existing to serve their membership.

Members who are the owners with equal say in what their co-operatives does. (1)

What is perhaps less well known by the general public is that Co-operatives are based on a number of values and principles agreed worldwide and should be” common to all”. It is the Seventh principle, which is the focus of this article, concern for community-working for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their membership (2). The primary audience is active co-operative members and those interested in community development through co-operative approaches.

It has been seven years since ChangeAGEnts ‘The older peoples’ participation co-operative’ ‘spun out’ from being a quasi-central government guano to an IPS multi-stakeholder charitable society for the benefit of the community (Charitable Ben Com), so time to reflect on the 7th principle of co- operation (3).

Regardless or perhaps more accurately, in spite of my concerns about how far the co-cooperative “corporate and local elite”(those in corporate positions of power e.g. directors or board members) translate their 7th Principle into reality, I remain totally wedded to the values and principles underpinning the so called Co-operative Commonwealth. They correctly represent a powerful means through which co-operatives can fundamentally revolutionise, not just social care, but via ownership and membership, control of and by local people and communities, change the current ageist narratives about older people.

I presently see, however, little evidence that the co-operative elite within the Group or even the large UK’s retail consumer societies have the vision or leadership to grasp the application of a “radical roots” approach, strategically or operationally to create a co-operative society for all ages. Neither yet, have they  grasped the potential of even their’ own considerable retail reach to bring about radical change to the lives of older people within their communities (4).

Obviously co-operatives working together for sustainable community development (Principle 6) is not just about the older generation, nor should it be. My point is that the older demographic whilst increasing, remains trapped in ageist stereotyped assumptions that emphasise deficit models and hence totally fails to apply Principle 7 on the basis of assets, opportunities and strengths, citizenship and co-production ie  Co-operators!(5).

The ageing population is seen by many as a time bomb and a health, pension and social problem, but in the words of economist Phil Mullan it is all ‘imaginary’ (6). Co-operatives UK has recently become seriously interested in the development of what it terms ‘social co-ops’ with the objective to become firmly established as a leading model for adult social care and support services in the UK. Drawing on worldwide ‘evidence’ social co-operatives are viewed as a “proven means of bringing these ideas to life “ (7)(8). This is welcomed and timely in so far that government policy seeks to encourage co-operative and mutual responses  within health and social care provision, but we need to be cautious on a number of levels. Firstly it is a government approach to reduce costs and in addition, ministerial ignorance about the co-operative sector and secondly the co-operative sector itself will grasp the idea of expanding its reach and economy without protecting the integrity of its own values and principles, especially the already ‘under nourished’ Principle 7.

The challenge will be how far the development of social care enterprises, services and businesses within the co-operative economy will be rooted firmly within Principle 7 whereby local people, members, staff and service users and their families (kindred or otherwise) actually control the governance and above all, own the nature of the service.

Older people in particular, find public service provision (commissioned or direct) immensely patronising and paternalistic. Being a co-operative may not in itself change that experience. Indeed voluntary and open membership, democratic control, economic participation, autonomy and independence will not necessarily address the inherent ageism existing throughout society, including therefore, within the co-operative sector.

It does however have a better chance than the current ‘command and control’ structures and processes of many public services, charities and business enterprises! Being a co- operative, as we have painfully learnt in recent times, does not immune the business from corruption, corporate greed and avarice, despite its own stated values and principles.

Translating Principle 7 into practice, is to acknowledge that co-operatives and mutuals “are not a quick fix” (9) whether into co-operative wealth creation, development, addressing the poverty of opportunity, social inclusion or resisting ageism. Sustainable Co-operative community development is frequently narrated as “concern for the community”. The first shade of meaning of the word ‘concern’ is ‘worry’ but further connotations are “future proofing”, “care giving” and perceived inadequacy”. Anybody involved in community development, will be aware that the process is not about parachuting in a co-operative template, evangelising and certainly not giving a workshop on fundraising.

To be fair, however, the UK is not alone in not integrating Principle 7 within the sum total of all the 7 principles of co-operation where older people generally and older members particularly are concerned. Community development is at the heart of Principle 7. It is not about charity giving it is about empowering local community co-operative responses to social injustice and social exclusion. What is required is further Co-operative international research into the application of community development within Principle 7.

Equally important is seeing the development of Social Care Coops beyond simply worker co-operatives but rather encouraging multi stakeholder ownership and governance thus including service users, families, workers and communities/neighbourhoods. Nor should their development be viewed in the context of current narratives around social care funding crises and provision seeking to reduce costs. We have long known that these cost reductions are at the expense of workers experiencing poor and exploitative employment conditions. A co-operative response must address the development of ‘Fair Care’ proposed by my Change AGEnts colleague and activist, Cheryl Barrott  and slowly gaining interest within the sector (10) and writes that “Fair Care works as a mark because of the synthesis of the Fair Trade movement, the values and principles within the brand and any similar mark for co-operative care would also have to be developed from, and be recognised as a social movement” (11).

Such a movement has surely to be borne out of and rooted within Principle 7 and a broader co-operative community development activity and hence owned by the community capturing “various processes and activities by which interested parties within the community can successfully pursue common social, economic and even cultural objectives” (12). It is this connecting within Principle 7 that has the potential to place community development within the wider national, local, social, economic and cultural landscape.

The challenge is perhaps less about the formation of co-operative enterprises but more the overlap between “processes and activities, interests and objectives between a given community and its’ co-operators”. It is not about doing things in and for the community but identifying co-operator “community leaders” and members; provide an open and transparent response to community needs (identified by and be of the community); evidence environmentally sound practices; provide finances and set up costs to develop community co-operatives; invest in community infra structures ; build social capital which includes empowerment, teamwork, networking, empathy, equity and civic and civil participation (13).

Principle 7 is not an add on, take it or leave it principle, discharged by having a co-operative pop up stand at a local fete or neighbourhood festival, nor even a sizable donation to a worthy cause or campaign welcomed and important as they are,  Principle 7 is about community integration, actively involved as key stakeholders and influencers within civic and civil society. Co-operative community development has to be integrated into the Co-operative economic activity- be that retail, social care, credit unions, housing provision and indeed all co-operative enterprises big and small.

At this point it is worth reflecting on a significant social and economic issue, namely the benefits of an ageing demographic. Indeed there are challenges, often expressed in ageist terms as burdens, time bombs and tsunamis. The co-operative in my view can, via Principle 7, promote a different narrative: one of contribution, citizenship, autonomy, control and of course, co-operation. Such a strength based approach (14) challenges deficit, sickness and dependency constructs. Let the Co-operative Group donate to worthy causes, which is of course right and proper, but let it also demonstrate leadership and resources to nourishing, in partnership or even via Co-operative UK, whilst equally showing international vision and foresight. We need an approach that confronts social injustice and inequality through the Co-operative reach.

An initiative that Change AGEnts has been brokering in Sheffield, England-UK, is converting an ancient derelict  Bath House site, into a community hub of sanctuary which will be co-generational, offering a range of experiences from retail, to weddings and an open space for deliberation, debate and community activism. This facility will become, it is hoped, a multi stakeholder co-operative which will include participating local community and co-operative organisations, workers, and users in membership and underpinned by and through Principle 7.

In Leytonstone, East London, Change AGEnts has partnered with web based East London Radio hosting a weekly chat and music show called AGE SPEAKS focussed on age and aging issues. Now in its second series, it also acts as a platform to promote co-operative values and relevance to an ageing population, social care and older entrepreneurs setting up co-operatives and mutuals. 

In conclusion the relationship between co-operative economic and community development is perhaps best summed up by Jessica Gordon Nembhard nearly a quarter of a century ago:

"Co-operative economic development solves many problems created by market failure, economic discrimination, and under-development.  Co-operative businesses are group centred, needs based, and asset building local development models based on pooling resources, democratic economic participation and profit sharing.  They are locally controlled, internally driven democratic institutions that promote group learning, economic interdependence, and consolidation of resources, development of assets and protection of people and the environment. Co-operative stabilise their communities - increasing economic activity, creating good jobs, increasing benefits and wages, and encouraging civic participation. Community-based, co-operative owned enterprises are chacterised by greater community input and participation in the planning, development, and governance of commercially viable socially responsible businesses. Co-operatives provide a mechanism for low resourced people with few traditional opportunities to create new economic opportunities for themselves and their co - workers and or neighbours." (15).

Principle 7 is a Co-operative Principle for ALL generations. It  only remains a myth, if within the Co-operative commonwealth, it is left undernourished.


1. Co-operatives UK ‘What is a Co-operative’? Leaflet, Holyocke House, Manchester

2. Change Agents. The Older Peoples’ Participation Co-operative. Leaflet. c/o SCDG, Aizlewood Mill, Nursery Street, Sheffield, S3 8GG:

3. Groombridge B, ‘ Better Government with Older Citizens: A Test of Democracy’ The Political Quarterly Vol 81. Issue 1.2010 p131-141

4. Vox World Coops: The E-Communities Coop. Richard O’Farrell, Founder, Social Innovator and Cultural Entrepreneur

5. Local Government Association: ‘Ageing: The Silver Lining: the opportunities and challenges of an ageing society for local government. Authored by Guy Robertson. LGA, Local Government House, Smith Square, London SW1P 3HZ ( June 2015) p6

6. Mullan Phil, ‘The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is Not a Social Problem’ I.B. Tauris Publishers London. New York (2002)

7. Co-operatives UK. Draft Social Co-ops Campaign Outline: James Wright (2015) p3

8. Connerly Pat.’ Social Care’ Chapter 12 in ‘ The Co-operative Advantage’ Edited by Mayo Ed (July 2015)

9. McDonald, Wallace and McPherson. ‘Co-operative Enterprise: Building a Better World.’ Chapter 7 Wealth Creation, Community Development and Poverty Reduction: Global Co-operative Development Group: Inc USA (p121)

10. Barrott C. Social Care Trademark Manifesto: Change AGEnts Discussion Paper (2014)

11. Ibid Barrott C

12. Ibid Mcdonald, Wallace and MacPherson (p111)

13. Ibid (p 112)

14. Ibid Silver Linings: LGA (p6)

15. Ibid Mc Donald, Wallace, Mac Pherson. Quote of Jessica Nembhard, who in tern is referenced from a Paper prepared by Gordon Nembhard 2004(a); Fairbairn, Bold, Fulton, Hammond Ketison and Ish (1991)

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