Labour city councillor Richard Howlett discusses his role as the authority’s cooperatives champion.

For the past decade I have worked in various cooperative enterprises here. So I was delighted in January to become Oxford City Council’s first ‘cooperatives champion’ and bring some of my work experience to my role as a political representative.

Here in our city we have a thriving cooperative sector. We have cooperatively-owned pubs, food shops, farmers’ markets, a publishing house, a design agency, a childcare co-op and housing co-ops, as well as the best known Midcounties Co-op chain of grocery stores, to name just a few.

So what are we talking about when we talk about co-ops? An official definition describes an ‘autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise’.

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So this is something outside of the state, but also a distinctly different part of the private sector. It is not a charity doing something good for other people. It is about people coming together to meet a collective need. It doesn’t generate private profit for individual owners or shareholders, but it can produce a surplus which can be ploughed back into the enterprise as capital investment or be used to raise wages.

At the core of any co-op are its members who own the business. Depending on the type of co-op, the members will have a different relationship with the organisation, usually either customers, workers or members of the local community. In all these instances, critically each member has an equal vote, no matter whether you have invested £1m or £1, you are equal.

I came here to work for a publishing co-op, New Internationalist magazine, and then went onto join another co-op, Seeds for Change Oxford, a popular education outfit aimed at supporting social change groups to have the skills they need to work effectively.

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I then went onto work in five different food retail-based co-ops: three farmers’ markets, where customers and members of the community, were members; one food-growing co-op which also sold vegetables, Cultivate, and one market which grew into a shop and café, the national award-winning Talking Shop in Sandford, where I still work.

In all of these outfits I saw the benefits of the cooperative model: money ploughed back into the project; better decisions made because the people impacted by the decisions were involved in making them.

Customers deciding what stalls should be at their market; members of a village community deciding what they want on the menu in their cafe and deciding what should sit on the shelves in their shop.

I have seen scores of people from a huge range of backgrounds pouring hours of voluntary time into these projects. I remember serving on the till in a previous job and having customers who were also volunteers and members seeing it was busy so they would jump on a till and help out.

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What this all showed me was there is a thirst in our society, from people from all sorts of background, for alternatives to our current economic system and for opportunities to work collectively.

And that it is when we can see and feel those alternatives that they really resonate. In my current job I see the material difference that collective community ownership makes. I can see that as soon as people walk in the door they know they are somewhere different and special.

My experience is reflected in research which shows a resilient as well as socially beneficial model. A report by the New Economics Foundation on co-ops stated: “Recent studies have shown them to be more enduring and resilient in the face of market disruption, more profitable, more productive, happier and longer-lasting.”

Co-ops in Oxford are businesses we should treasure. As cooperatives champion I look forward to celebrating their contribution in Cooperatives Fortnight next month.