Co-operatives are firmly back on the political agenda - James Wright

Visitors to Robert Owen’s New Lanark World Heritage Site are in no doubt that Scottish Co-operatives have a long, proud history. Scotmid Co-operative was already 85 years old by the time Sean Connery started work in the St Cuthbert’s dairy and celebrated its 160th anniversary two years ago.
James Wright is Policy Officer, Co-operatives UK, trade body for Britain’s 7,000 co-operativesJames Wright is Policy Officer, Co-operatives UK, trade body for Britain’s 7,000 co-operatives
James Wright is Policy Officer, Co-operatives UK, trade body for Britain’s 7,000 co-operatives

But it’s not all about the history; recent developments mean co-operatives are firmly back on the political agenda.

The Scottish Government is now committed to supporting co-ops. The shared policy programme agreed by the SNP and Greens promises to provide tailored support to increase the representation of co-ops in the Scottish economy. There is a specific reference to provide further support for housing co-ops, which could include Land and Buildings Transaction Tax relief, with funding and financing options.

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We know there's a real economic case for co-ops and that businesses who share power and wealth are the future. It's significant that this is now reflected in government policy and in 2021 manifesto commitments from the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

The Cross Party Group (CPG) on Co-operatives in the last Parliament was a critical platform for developing thinking on how Scotland could do more to reinvigorate its co-operative economy. The group investigated how more housing co-operatives could be established, drawing on evidence from the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op and West Whitlawburn Housing Co-op in Cambuslang. The evidence showed housing co-ops work well and respond to the needs of their residents who are in control of their own living space. But sadly, Scotland was failing to draw on this experience and needed to do more to create the next generation of housing co-ops. This new political agreement is a chance to do that.

Covid-19 has changed the way we all think and co-ops are part of that too. The CPG wanted to see if co-ops were resilient in the face of the pandemic and how well they stood up to the challenges. The experience across Scotland showed clearly that the co-op movement was responsive to the needs of its members and the wider community. That was true for everyone from the co-operative media, such as the West Highland Free Press, to the community shop movement, represented by the Crunchy Carrot in Dunbar.

Not only was resilience increased in the face of unprecedented challenges but co-ops like these showed how increased government support could help create business opportunities for more new co-ops across the country.

The SNP-Green co-operation agreement should result in stronger policy support for co-ops across Scotland. Whilst there has always been support in the Scottish Parliament for co-operatives - not least from Scottish Co-operative Party members - this is the first time for over a decade that explicit support has been set up in a comprehensive programme for government and we very much welcome that.

Interest from all sides of the political spectrum is growing and Co-operatives UK was pleased to give evidence to the Economy and Fair Work Committee on economic recovery early in September. There are big challenges ahead as Scotland seeks a better future after Covid. The fact that co-operatives are now at the forefront of that is a huge opportunity, and we should all work together to ensure it is not missed.

James Wright is Policy Officer, Co-operatives UK, trade body for Britain’s 7,000 co-operatives.

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