More to co-operatives than shops, West Midlands businesses discover

Guest speakers Len Wardle and Kevin Rye with Nick Matthews

A wide range of West Midlands professionals gathered in Birmingham on Friday (March 23) to network, do business, and find out more about the co-operative enterprise model.

The meeting was held at the lavish banqueting suite of Birmingham Council House, and was attended by Anita Ward, the city’s first female Co-operative Lord Mayor.

Anyone under the impression that this meant dividing her time between leading a city and running a supermarket was soon put straight.

Cllr Ward told delegates that the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives, which is being celebrated in 2012, was an opportunity to “step back and look at how, in the current climate, co-operatives are more important now than they have ever been.”

Lord Mayor Anita Ward meets Estelle Edwards of The Future Melting Pot

The Lord Mayor singled out Birmingham-based Future Melting Pot as an organisation that was “engaging with young people in the light of the riots.” The co-operative is holding a high-profile Citizens’ Inquiry into last summer’s riots in Birmingham at the Council House on April 5.

The Future Melting Pot was just one of the co-operative enterprises to have a display stand at the event, and the Lord Mayor visited several of them, talking to co-operators about their businesses. “I’ve learnt a lot just walking around in 10 minutes,” she said.

The event had not one, but two guest speakers. Len Wardle, chairman of the Co-operative Group – the world’s largest consumer co-operative society, which is owned not by shareholders but by over six million members – said: “Co-operatives are built on the principles of democracy and economic return to their members according to their trade, not the shares they hold.”

“During the financial crisis the capitalist model was found to be wanting. The co-operative model is sustainable – we are about human need, not human greed.”

Len Wardle, chairman of the Co-operative Group

He reminded networkers that the Co-operative Group had a retail outlet in every postcode in Britain, and was helping people to start their own co-operative businesses – currently running at a rate of one per day – through the Co-operative Hub, which sponsors business support and advice to fledgling co-ops.

The meeting also heard from Keith Rye of Supporters Direct, a co-operative that has helped fans of 170 spectator sports clubs form Supporters Trusts, giving them a say in the way their club is run or, in some circumstances, helping them to take control of their own club.

High profile successes include Premier League football club Swansea City, in which the fans have a 20 percent stake, which went from “a club on its knees to the top flight in nine years.”

Mr Rye told networkers how Supporters Direct was now working in 25 countries across Europe, and was reaching clubs in the USA and South America too.

Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct

He said clubs owned, or part-owned, by supporters were stable, shared a long-term vision, and were accountable. “In football, as in business, you need external regulation,” he said. “Co-operatives start with the right values and principles.”

The event, which attracted representatives from around 80 West Midlands businesses, was organised by Co-operatives West Midlands, the representative body of co-operative enterprise in the region, and supported by Midlands Co-operative Society, Midcounties Co-operative Society, The Heart of England Co-operative Society and The Co-operative Enterprise Hub.

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