Community schemes are paying dividends in the North East

At a time when the economic climate is claiming the scalps of traditional companies, the UK economy’s success story lies in co-operative businesses sector

Blessing Emmanuel set up the Sunderland Student Food Co-op
Blessing Emmanuel set up the Sunderland Student Food Co-op

Doing it together can be a lucrative proposition for the growing number of co-operative businesses.

At a time when the economic climate is claiming the scalps of traditional companies, the UK economy’s success story lies in the sector.

Since the start of the credit crunch, co-operatives have outperformed the UK economy growing by around 20% to more than £35bn since 2008.

Membership of co-operatives in the UK is up to 15.4m – the highest ever – and up 13.7% since last year.

There are now a record number of co-operatives in the UK with 6,169 different projects.

And those figures are not to be sniffed at as communities rally together to achieve wonders.

Co-Op Fortnight, which runs until July 6, has put the spotlight on the many initiatives.

Co-operatives can turn up anywhere, anyone can be involved, and can do anything.

They include the villagers of Slaley, Northumberland, raising money to buy their own pub.

Norman Watson is chairman of Slaley Community Assets Ltd aiming to buy the Rose and Crown from brewers Marstons for £250,000.

The group have almost raised enough to go ahead with the purchase.

Watson said: “The pub had been very popular in its time and was well used when it was in private ownership.

“It was taken over by a brewery but it could not get a tenant to stay more than six months and people stopped going when it no longer provided food.

“We have a community trust charged with looking after the village and discussions about buying the pub started there.

“I work in the co-operative sector specialising in employee buy-outs when the owner wants to retire so I knew what to do.

“We have now raised £170,000 from villagers and former villagers who want to protect an asset.

“We have promised a dividend, perhaps not in the first year, but certainly in the second and third years.

“It’s been a lot of effort but it’s going to be worthwhile.”

The plan is to appoint a manager and oversee essential renovations with the restaurant hopefully being back up and running by the end of this year.

If the community hadn’t decided to buy it the Rose and Crown would have gone on the open market with no guarantee of it continuing as a pub. Norman emphasises that a co-operative is about making money.

That’s a theme picked up by Jane Byrne, spokeswoman for the Fortnight, who says the image of small groups of civic-minded people running a co-operative for a cosy feeling of helping the community is only part of the story.

She said: “I don’t think people understand. They are often seen as “nice” but it’s as much about profit.

“Having said that, some of the most successful are those where people in the community have a stake in what’s going on whether it’s buying a pub or running a shop.

“Co-ops make a great contribution to our economy and communities and are becoming increasingly popular as people look for ways to take more control of their lives.”


A volunteer for Shared Interest ethical investment co-operative
A volunteer for Shared Interest ethical investment co-operative

Taking control of her life came naturally to Lisa Wake, one of two directors of Shiney Row Childcare in Houghton-le-Spring.

She had a successful career in sales but changed direction when she and fellow boss Wendy Harland joined the co-operative.

“It started off very humbly providing childcare in the local area and then expanded when Wendy and I took over.” she said.

“We are now the sole provider of mobile creche provision in Sunderland.

“We won the last tender against national opposition so we’re very proud of what we have done.

“It’s extremely hard work and all the people who work for us have a family way of working, the same mind-set and ethos, that we have.

“Everyone has a say, everyone is listened to, and we all want to make a difference.”

The group are a not-for-profit co-operative and any excess money is ploughed back into the business.

They use grants from government to provide free child care for the most under-privileged and employ 21 staff.

Other successful initiatives include the University of Sunderland Student Food Co-op.

It was set up by graduate Blessing Emmanuel with help from her supervisor and staff who wanted to make good quality local produce available on campus.

The business aims to help staff and students get organic and fresh fruit and vegetables at a reasonable price. They also sell home-made bread, chutneys and juices at their twice-weekly stall. Blessing became one of the finalists for Young Business Award when she won the Blueprint Pitch for the month of May from the university for her work and is using the prize money to help expand the project and introduce a wider range of products.

Shared Interest is a Newcastle-based ethical investment co-operative and the world’s only 100% Fair Trade lender.

It was formed in 1990 by a group of fair trade pioneers who shared a vision of reducing poverty and creating a financial co-operative to pool money from investors.

The money was lent to farmers and handicraft makers in the developing world and now Shared Interest is annually lending over �33m and is working in 36 countries around the globe.

Projects include the Bos a banana co-operative in Peru owned by 500 individual farmers.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
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