The Seed Co-operative


The Seed Co-operative is a community owned seed company which grows and sells organic and biodynamic open pollinated vegetable, herb and flower seed in the UK.  Launched in 2014, this initiative is building on the work of Stormy Hall Seeds (Camp Hill Village Trusts) which for 20 years has been the biggest organic vegetable seed producer in the UK on just 7 acres. As a Community Benefit Society the capital backing is mainly provided through community shares, with 260 people current co-owners, and many more sought.   Seed sales will mean that seed production will at least break-even and pay staff and overhead costs in the long-run, but just as only inherited farms can be viable in the current economic situation, the wider community is enabling us to ‘inherit’ this farm. 

The Seed Co-operative is an initiative of the Biodynamic Association, supported by Garden Organic and the Organic Research Centre, working with Open Pollinated Seeds and experienced seedsman Hans Steenbergen.

A small farm in Lincolnshire, run by a small team of staff and volunteers, is currently in organic conversion, and provides a hub for a growing UK wide network of seed producers. Its focus is on regenerating UK farm-based organic seed production and participatory plant breeding amongst small scale growers to ensure the availability of appropriately priced seed of the best quality, suitable for UK growing conditions.  The Seed Co-operative has a customer base of over 4,500, partly inherited from Stormy Hall Seeds, and deals with commercial growers and organic retailers, plus mail order and web sales to gardeners.

In 2016 there were eight growers producing seed as part of the network, in 2017 this figure increased to 17, with more interested in getting involved in 2018.

Without open pollinated seed the evolution of our food crops is in jeopardy. 

Since 1900 the global availability of food crop varieties has reduced by more than 90%. Many of the remaining open pollinated varieties are in desperate need of restorative maintenance after decades of under-investment whilst seed companies have concentrated on F1 hybrids. Choices being made about the shape of our food system are being driven by short-term economic considerations resulting in the domination of F1 hybrid varieties and the consequent loss of open pollinated varieties.

Within the natural world insurance is provided not by the money markets but by diversity. Natural resilience comes from the ability of species to adapt to changing conditions; that ability is inherently dependent on the genetic diversity within living organisms as much as having a diversity of species / varieties.  Open pollinated seed, compared to F1 hybrid or GM seed, is genetically diverse and provides for a resilient food system rooted in natural processes.

Seed companies’ commercial interests are protected by concentrating on F1 hybrids because seeds cannot be saved as they do not breed true-to-type, meaning growers have to go back every year to buy more seeds.  Patents and other legal devices are also dominating the seed world, placing control of our food system in the hands of very few people. 

The Seed Co-operative is about demonstrating that this process is reversible. 

Learn more here:





Posted in Environment, Ethics, Worker co-operatives | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment



From ‘A History of Small Heath’: 6 March 2010

Alan Clawleyalso co-founder and mainstay of the only independent credit union in Birmingham – summarised:

During the 70s the City Council developed a new Urban Renewal approach to housing renovation, driven by a multi-disciplinary officers’ group led by Councillor Taylor (Labour), was an idea which came out of an Urban Renewal Conference in 1972.

Midland Area Improvement Housing Association was active in Small Heath from the late 70s and helped the new housing co-operatives to get started with a determined band of housing workers and local residents.

In between leaving the Inner Area Study in 1976 and joining Urban Renewal in 1977 I was asked to join the voluntary Small Heath Co-operative Housing Advisory Group. This was made up of several professionals who had seen the opportunity for developing housing co-ops following the passing of the 1974 Housing Act which established the Housing Corporation and a system of capital funding (Housing Association Grant or “HAG”).

Small Heath’s first co-op was Holmwood and Storrs which was already going by the time I got involved with the Group. An active member of the Group was Sylvia Allen who was the Team Clerk and who lived in Holmwood Road. Holmwood Co-op was opened in 1977 and followed by Victoria, Triangle, Small Heath Park 1984, Blake Lane and the Bordesley Shell Co-op the number of dwellings owned by co-ops in Small Heath rose to over a hundred by the end of the century.

The Small Heath Co-operative Housing Advisory group decided that “Victoria” be the Group’s next target for a housing co-op. I was at the time Chair of the Victoria Residents Association and agreed to use the occasion of the Annual General Meeting in January 1977 to float the idea of a Victoria housing cooperative. Urban Renewal gave the Group some names of landlords who owned run-down rented houses in the area. One of these was Jack Cotton the estate agent. The houses were mostly occupied by elderly people paying very low rents. This was presumably the reason the landlord gave for not spending any money on their upkeep. Armed with this list a few members of the Group, Ian Young, Peter White, Jon Fitzmaurice, Mike Martin and I, called on the tenants.

We carried the good news that the government would give us money if we formed our own housing co-operative, bought their house from the landlord and renovated it to a high standard for them to live in. At first this was received with healthy scepticism but we had won our first convert, Phil Parsons who lived with his elderly mother in Cyril Road. We began to form a group which eventually contained the seven founder members (Phil Parsons, Kath Hoey, Paddy Hoey, Terry Currier, Mrs Parsons, Hazel and me).  A grant was received from a charitable foundation to apply to the National Federation of Housing Associations for the use of their Model Rules and for the co-op to be registered as an Industrial and Provident Society.

The Victoria Tenants Co-opera­tive became an Industrial and Provident Society in 1978 and was also registered by the Housing Corporation so as to be eligible for Housing Association Grants. It decided early on to appoint Midland Area Improvement Housing Association as its development agent and Gwynne Roberts as its architect.

The Small Heath Co-operative Housing Advisory Group eventually turned into a formally constituted secondary co-operative, Small Heath Co-operative Housing Services, and was given funding from the Inner-City Partnership Programme for several years. This gave the work some stability and a team of paid staff to enable it to support the growth of co-ops in Small Heath (see NFHA Yearbook for details).

The Sunday Mercury published an account and a photograph of the members of the Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative on its housing site on Cooksey Road in July 1982. The report, headed “Digging in to stay together”, said: 

“When their homes were threatened with demolition, the families of Byron Road vowed that the community they had built over a lifetime should never be destroyed. They would stick together even if that meant building a brand-new street of their own. Yesterday – after a five-year battle – the families finally saw the foundation stone laid on a £1million scheme that will do just that. A total of 47 new homes are to be built just a stones throw from their old terraced houses in the inner-city Birmingham suburb of Small Heath. To beat the bulldozer, Byron Road families formed themselves into a housing co-operative, a self-help organisation which legally empowered them to become part of the high-powered world of housing development. 

But they hit a series of problems. First the site earmarked for the project by Birmingham City Council was caught in a tangle of freehold problems. Then it became officially set aside for the building of a new silicon chip factory. When that plan was finally abandoned by councillors the co-operative was finally allowed to sign contracts. With money from the Government’s Housing Corporation and guided by a committee of residents building work at last began. The foundation stone on the scheme was laid yesterday by the former chairman of the city’s housing committee, Coun. Hugh McCallion.” 

By 1983 our son was eleven and our daughter eight years old. We needed a three-bedroom house. We had hoped that Victoria Tenants Co-operative would meet our need but this was not to be. So we approached Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative who were looking for people to replace those who had dropped off the waiting list for their new scheme on Cooksey Road. 

We attended the interview and were offered a house. We chose number 26 Taywood Drive and moved in on 4th July 1983. Hazel started straight away to attend Committee meetings, taking seriously her obligation to be a good co-operator. At our first General Meeting in April 1984 we were both elected to the committee. We soon found that the founding caucus held very tightly onto the reins of the co-op. It was clear that we had joined their co-op and we were not one of them. Even the street name “Taywood Drive” was a way of immortalising its two founding families, the Taylors and Attwoods. It seemed however that the Housing Corporation had put them under pressure to recruit more young people and it was true that the vacancies they weren’t able to fill from their own number were the family houses. The split between the “founders” and the “newcomers” was thus reinforced by age and status. It was a division that proved impossible to overcome.

SHCHAG became a secondary Co-operative called Small Heath Co-operative Housing Services and for a time managed Small Heath Park’s rent account. During my time as Chair the Co-op bought its own computer and software and began to manage the accounts from an office in one of the flats on the estate. SHCHS became Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services and was taken over by the Accord Housing Association. It moved out of its small and run-down office on the Coventry Road and took up more salubrious accommodation in the Bond, a converted warehouse in Digbeth.

Read a fuller account here





Posted in Co-operative movement, Democratic participation | Tagged , | Leave a comment

March visitors: Co-operative Bank, Roger Sawtell, Worker Co-ops


People from 9 countries visited the site in March.







Posted in Banking, Website, Worker co-operatives | Leave a comment

Save our Bank’s priorities

In the last Save our Bank newsletter over 400 members voted on the priorities for the Customer Union for Ethical Banking in 2018.

The results were analysed and the main conclusion drawn was that making sure the Co-op Bank’s Ethical Policy stays in place and its integrity is maintained is the number one priority for most supporters.

The top priority for the Union was to engage with the bank on any upcoming review of the Ethical Policy. The prospect of a new review of the Ethical Policy was raised in the bank’s last Values and Ethics report in the summer, but this might be delayed.

Another priority was developing dialogue with the bank’s current owners (the US hedge funds) to advocate that they return the bank to cooperative ownership as and when they sell their stake and campaigning for the bank to investigate options for returning to cooperative ownership and publish its findings.

Plans to create a share fund to build a cooperative shareholding in the bank, and to develop a structured relationship with the bank, were ranked lower. These priorities will be acted on and contact will be made with the biggest shareholders in the Co-op Bank as next steps.

90 new members have been welcomed to the Customer Union since the last newsletter. and it has just been awarded a small (£1,000) grant from Midcounties Cooperative to help it to engage with the wider co-operative movement to raise awareness of the Customer Union and be more effective in holding the bank to account on ethics and perusing a return to co-operative ownership.





Posted in Banking, Democratic participation, Ethics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Fig Tree has become a co-operative


Bruce Crowther began campaigning for Oxfam in 1984 in his spare time. He worked as a vet and persuaded residents and local businesses in Garstang, a small market town, to make a commitment to Fairtrade. Garstang declared itself the world’s first Fairtrade Town in 2000 and inspired the Fairtrade Foundation to develop the Fairtrade Towns campaign.

Since then, over 1,000 Fair Trade Towns in 23 countries worldwide have followed in Garstang’s footsteps. The establishment of the FIG Tree international visitor centre in 2011 was the logical next stage in maintaining Garstang as a beacon for Fairtrade. Read a 2013 account of this remarkable achievement here.

fig tree 3 logo

The Fig Tree relocated to St. John’s Church, Lancaster, but suffered localised flooding before Christmas. The Lancaster Guardian reported: “Terrible floods caused untold damage to one of the most historic buildings in Lancaster”.

Can readers suggest new premises in Lancaster?

Despite being rendered homeless the FIG Tree continued to work for fair trade and trade justice and The Friends Meeting House in Lancaster (below) kindly allowed the Fig Tree to use their premises for meetings and workshops free of charge.

Over 120kg of chocolate were produced, providing a sales income of £6,500. This must be increased in 2018, hence the need to find suitable premises so production can be taken away from Bruce’s kitchen and volunteers can be enlisted.

Following the success of our soya milk chocolate an almond milk chocolate and a vegan white chocolate also using almond milk has been produced. It is available at Single Step wholefood cooperative and The Radish in Lancaster. FIG Tree chocolate is also available online from Ellie Choc Chocolates.

Readers are invited to join the Fig Tree Co-operative

Bruce wrote recently “If you know of an individual, corporate, community group and especially a Fair Trade Town group that may consider joining us we would be most grateful for your support in encouraging them. The flyer (above) is for information and application forms to download are available on our website at:”

The Fig Tree so far has 30 members and its target is 200.  There is one corporate member, the Cooperative Group, and more community group members are needed. All members that sign up before the AGM will be entered into a draw to win a FIG Tree chocolate hamper worth £50, The AGM will be held later in the year when more members have joined and suitable premises may have become available..

Regular messages will be sent to all members every month except January, April, July and October each year when the quarterly newsletter will be sent to over 550 subscribers, including all members.

Contact: Bruce Crowther Executive Director, The FIG Tree:


m: 07526 713255





Posted in Co-operative Group, Co-operative movement, Education | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

London’s Worker Co-ops

This interesting website, encountered by chance, focusses on London’s worker co-ops. Some are well established businesses run in line with co-op ethics, values and principles. They are worker-owned and controlled, providing a wide variety of services and products to members and customers.

Learn more about them by following the links:

London has new and young co-ops, including:

Organiclea is a community food project based in the Lea Valley in north-east London.  They produce and distribute food and plants locally, and inspire and support others to do the same. With a workers’ cooperative at their core, they bring people together to take action towards a more just and sustainable society. They sell foodgrow food and help others to grow food too.  Not only that, but they also connect their work to a wider vision for a more just and sustainable food system locally, nationally and international and  are part of the Land Workers Alliance, the Community Food Growers Network and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The Black Cat Cafe is a 100% vegan, not-for-profit and cooperatviely run cafe in Hackney.  They are a small workers co-operative that aims to promote an ethical lifestyle. They’ve got a great review in the Hackney Citizen and apparently do the best vegan breakfast in London.

Cycle Training UK is a not-for-profit workers’ co-operative promoting cycling for all.  They have trained over 80,000 people to cycle skilfully and confidently on roads. As well as delivering urban cycling sessions to individuals, schools, workplaces and organisations, they offer maintenance sessions, instructor courses and driver training.

Worker-owned and controlled businesses the UK elect a Worker Co-operative Council, which publishes the excellent Worker Co-op Code, a quick guide to what worker co-ops are all about. It’s been translated and published in several languages. but we’re aiming to grow.

Anyone who is interested in starting a workers’ co-op, wants to convert their workplace into one, or just wants to visit a co-op and meet some of their members – should get in touch with London’s worker co-ops. 




Posted in Co-operative movement, Democratic participation, Worker co-operatives | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Risk online banking? The Co-operative Bank’s alternative

As Co-operative Bank branches (and those of several other banks) close in several areas, including Swindon, Warrington, Taunton and Tunstall (above), customers are directed in two directions:

  • to stand in long queues and pay in and draw out money at post offices (a cumbersome process I’m told)
  • or to sign up for online banking.

But online bank fraud is the UK’s fastest growing area of crime – doubling from £60m in 2014 to an expected total beyond £130m this year – and the losses to consumers have in some cases been of the life-changing order of £90,000 each.

The National Audit Office records that the volume of online ‘card not present’ fraud increased by 103% between 2011 and 2016

All web-based services such as online banking are subject to risks such as online theft of your access code/user ID/username, PIN/password, virus attacks, hacking, unauthorized access and fraudulent transactions.

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge’s computer laboratory, and one of Britain’s foremost experts on cybersecurity, says he has never banked online – and has no plans to do so. He believes that system has become so weighted in favour of the banks that it is now the customers that carry all the risk. If a man who has chronicled the rise of online banking won’t use it, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Allow customers the choice

A reader who banks with the Co-operative Bank was firmly encouraged towards online banking a few days ago when phoning to transfer funds. The impression was given that this was essential, but when pressed the staff member admitted it was not. Indeed she wavered a great deal more when it was pointed out that her job could well be eliminated with the closing down of telephone operations. The telephone service is more secure and has proved reliable.

The Co-operative Bank’s new chairman, Bob Dench, takes over next month as Dennis Holt retires at 70. In a statement Mr Holt said, “The Co-operative Bank has been through challenging times in the past four years as it has worked hard to fix the legacy issues that led to the crisis it faced in late 2013. It now has solid foundations and a clear pathway to sustainable profitability and robust capital resilience”.




Posted in Banking, Problems | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment