Co-ops at the North Somerset Initiative

On Wednesday, I went to a meeting of the Business Initiative for North Somerset for Cooperatives-SW (our regional cooperative cooperative). It was the first time anyone from the cooperative and mutual sector was present.


Bank of England

The first speaker was Geoff Harding from the Bank of England, who talked through topics in their agents’ summary and related news.

One interesting graph showed a steep rise in the percentage of household income being saved. Answers to questions suggested that more of that goes to mutuals and building societies, but they find it difficult to be competitive while the banks are keen to increase their balances.

There was mention of “employment hoarding” – businesses short-time working, redeploying or shutting down temporarily to keep trained workers under contract, rather than make them redundant and rehire later.

People from both the Federation of Small Businesses and the Hoteliers’ Association made strong comments about the banks claiming to government that they are willing to lend, but still offering deeply unattractive depth-of-recession rates and terms. If the regional agents get details of such cases, they pass them to the central bank.

South West Regional Development Agency

The second main speaker was Ann O’Driscoll, who covers business development for the “West of England” (what many people call CUBA – Councils that Used to Be Avon). She introduced their four strategic priorities:-

  1. Low Carbon Economy – apparenly our region has good wind, wave and solar experience. However, Vestas were mentioned and I know that when Vestas closed the UK’s only wind turbine blade factories in August 2009, the RDAs were criticised for not acting against “the subsidy-chasing, socially irresponsible conduct of Vestas” and related companies continue to worry workers. If Vestas is one of the praised companies, I wonder whether we’re attracting sustainable work to the region.

    On a related note, North Somerset Council and NS Enterprise Agency are organising a Climate Change forum on 1st April, but it’s at Cadbury House Hotel, which is awkward to get to except by car: no footpath to the door, a mile-and-a-half walk along a busy road from a train station, bad roads for biking, wheelbending speedhumps on the drive, I can’t remember if there is bicycle parking and its website doesn’t say

  2. Successful Businesses – SWRDA funds our rather poor Business Link service. Does someone in the South West have some good news about Business Link? If so, please leave a comment on this article.

  3. Prosperous Places – intervention in areas like south Bristol or central Weston.

  4. United Approach – co-ordinating with other regional groups.

The main activities introduced were:

  • Area Action Forces – eight of these facilitate the closure of branches by large private-sector employers, gathering the various government departments and agencies together to help find the workers other jobs or fill out social security application forms. It probably helps, but I was surprised there wasn’t any example of a regionally-owned “phoenix” company arising from a branch closure to continue the service was mentioned.
  • Talent Retention Project – finding new employment for unemployed specialists in their own sector in this region. New startups were mentioned briefly. Not one mention of helping those specialists to co-own existing businesses.

The questions were fascinating, except for mine. The best one was probably about the forthcoming election and the Conservatives pledge to shut down the RDAs and Business Links. The answer was that much of the work will still need to be done somehow, so it’s more a question of who will do it, rather than what the name on the door says. So I don’t think axing RDAs is going to achieve more than shuffling people between organisations.

When allowed to ask a question, I got too excited and ranted a bit about how the Co-operative Group’s co-operative enterprise hub is doing work that Business Link should have been funding, but the RDA doesn’t understand social enterprise and treats it as a ghetto service. I’ll try to take that up in a more coherent form later.


I think Cooperatives-SW were invited to the North Somerset Initiative largely because of pressure from for co-ops to be represented better in the Local Strategic Partnership, which has treated us badly. NSI holds one of the three business places on the partnership board, with the other two being held by NSEA and Bristol International Airport.

I think it’s a bit off that a private company and an enterprise agency are both represented by other groups and also have their own board seats while co-ops don’t even have a collective seat, so that pressure for a representative organisation for co-operatives and mutuals to have a board place (in line with national government guidance) should continue, useful though the NSI meetings seem to be.

The other thing which would really help is some funding for co-operative business development specialists to work in North Somerset at strategic tasks like this, instead of it being left to ordinary workers from other sectors. I don’t know where that funding will come from and until then, I’ll continue to try my best. We need to make sure that local strategy at least does no harm to the sector.

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