Pay inequality, zero-hour contracts and a sense of disempowerment are driving people to form co-operatives, finds a new report. The sector is strengthening despite an uncertain economy
The UK’s co-operative sector has grown by £1bn since 2014, despite – or perhaps because of – economic uncertainty caused by austerity and Brexit, finds a report released today by Co-operatives UK. In contrast, the same period saw blips disrupt the steady growth in the UK GDP that had followed the 2008 economic crisis.
Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, said co-ops offer a solution to the growing sense of powerlessness people feel over the economy and their lives. “Underlying the political shocks the country has experienced over the last year is a call from many parts of the UK population for an economy over which they have more of a say and from which they get a fair share,” he said.
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The annual Co-operative Economy report reveals that there are now 6,815 independent co-ops across the UK, from shops and tech startups, to farms and housing providers – which last year turned over a total of £36bn. It found that UK co-ops employ 226,000 people and the number of active members is growing by almost 1 million each year, currently totalling 13.6 million.
The report’s authors suggest that increasing public frustration with big business, politics, and precarious living and working arrangements, is leading more people to join and establish co-ops. Some 15 per cent of the UK’s workforce is now self-employed; home ownership at its lowest level since 1986; and FTSE 100 companies pay their top earners an average of 129 times more than their lowest-paid workers.
According to figures from a YouGov poll carried out in May for Co-operatives UK, two-thirds of people feel they have no control over the economy and only a quarter feel that they have influence in either their workplace or their local area.
Co-ops give people a say in what they do and how their profits are used
“Co-ops give people a say in what they do and how their profits are used,” said Mayo. “They offer a practical way to reimagine an economy in which people have more control over their homes, work and local areas.”
UK co-operatives take many different forms. They include a pub in Brighton run by locals; oyster farmers in the Shetlands who market their produce together; a co-op for student housing in Edinburgh; and a relatively new yet growing network of creative and tech co-operatives in London.
In financial terms, co-operatives are strongest in retail: they turned over £25bn last year – largely due to the two giants of the co-operative sector: The Co-op and John Lewis. In sheer numbers, co-operatives are most prominent in the sports and social sector. This is a reflection of the fact, finds the report, that many of the most-loved clubs up and down the UK – from sporting bodies such as Lancashire Cricket Club to local working men’s and social clubs – have been formed by ordinary people wanting to create organisations that work for them and their local area.
Co-ops offer a practical way to reimagine an economy in which people have more control over their homes, work and local areas
“It’s no surprise we’re seeing a spike in interest in co-ops,” said Mayo, “whether it’s social care providers finding that a co-operative approach can give its users and workers a voice, or young designers and web developers seeing co-ops as a natural way to collaborate at work.”
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