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Community co-operatives are the glue that holds our society together in Wales. The recent publishing of our “Community Co-operatives in Wales – Ordinary people doing extraordinary things” report highlights the importance of co-operatives within Welsh (and also international) society and they are becoming an increasingly popular way of running a business in Wales. However, they are not a new concept, with the first cooperatives dating as far back as the 1840s. In recent years, and especially since the conception of the Wales Co-operative Centre in 1982, there has been a significant rise in the number of operating co-operatives across the whole of Wales and it is now estimated that there are approximately 394 in existence today.
It is worth noting that there are several different types of cooperative ranging from a consumer cooperative to a worker’s cooperative. However, our recent report focused solely on community cooperatives. The definition of a community cooperative can be found in the final report which was written by our director, Victoria Winckler. Essentially it is a:
“Business which provides a service or services to a particular neighborhood, village or town, and which has adopted the seven co-operative principles and values to guide their activities. These include being owned by and accountable to its members.”
So, my first job was to establish a list of as many community co-operatives in Wales who fitted the above description as possible and then request an interview with them or to ask them to fill in our online questionnaire. This focused on different aspects of the business ranging from when they were established to rating the impact they felt their co-operative had on the local community.
What was most apparent about the interviews I conducted was the sense of pride that people felt about the work they had put in to their co-operative since it had been established. Understandably, people had encountered numerous problems along the road to setting up their co-operative, not least in financial terms but there was an overarching sense of optimism that the financial situation would improve over the next three years.
Responses to the question “What impact (if any) have you had on your community?” generally brought the most feedback with respondents often noting that without the existence of their co-operative, the community would be adversely affected. Time and time again, the situation for the local village was one where the co-operative was filling a gap in the market for a community shop or service that had otherwise been taken away. People had been left without community shops, independent green grocers, childcare facilities and other services in the community and the co-operative had been set up as a direct response to this.
As mentioned, in order to be classed as a co-operative, there are seven recognised principles which have to be adopted. What was surprising when talking to people was the fact that a large majority of the time, their co-operative had implicitly adopted these principles and were not even aware of that fact! It was possible to sense a feeling of satisfaction when reading the principles to the interviewees who would often be shocked by how many of the principles they had actually managed to adopt.
For many of the co-operatives, the appreciation of members was in abundance and there was a general recognition that without them, the co-operative would cease to function. Some felt that people appreciated the work that they carried out and that without the co-operative, the community would be lost. So clearly, the relationship between co-operative and local community is vital to its success and benefits are mutual.
Without sounding too clichéd, the sense of community that was felt from the existence of many of the co-operatives was something that struck me. Upon visiting one community shop in an extremely rural part of Wales, the benefits for the villagers became immediately apparent. Not only could they purchase fresh produce, frozen food, homemade jams and their morning paper but the opportunity to volunteer in the shop was something which was greatly appreciated by the ageing population of the village.
I feel the resulting report is a documentation of the hard work of many people across Wales who have made use of an alternative type of business for the benefit of all in their community!
Catherine Davies is the Research Assistant for the Bevan Foundation