SDC’s cost-conscious, sustainable building project in Stirchley

Stirchley Co-operative Development (SCD), a group of local people in housing and worker co-operatives, is a co-op but not affiliated with “The Co-op” supermarket chain.

SCD is planning to build affordable and eco-friendly residential and retail premises in the heart of Stirchley on the corner of Hunts Road and Pershore Road to the right of the British Oak pub with Accord, a housing association with a track record of building cost-conscious flatpack houses that meet the Code for Sustainable Homes. After positive early talks with Seven Capital the group decided that the derelict land on the corner of Hunts Rd and Pershore Rd would make a suitable site for their project, which will not be part of Seven Capital’s development around Hazelwell Lane.

Chris Tomlinson of Birmingham Bike Foundry (BBF), an SDC member, spoke about the development at a meeting of the Stirchley Neighbourhood Forum some time ago.

He outlined plans for 30 residential units of a variety of sizes and 3 retail units built to high environmental standards. The development would be up to 3 storeys with some accessible residential units on the ground floor. All residents would be members of the co-operative and the retail units would be aimed at co-operative businesses, possibly relocating some local co-operatives on to the site.

In January Inside Media reported a council document published ahead of the meeting said: “It is considered that the proposal maintains the character and appearance of the area and has no adverse impact on the setting of a listed building”- a reference to The British Oak.

The development plan received the Council’s approval on 21 January (c) Stirchley Co-operative Development

Anca Voinea reported that the proposal was approved by Birmingham City Council on 21 January and Steve McCabe, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, commented: “This is a refreshing change from the normal profit led developments by companies whose shareholders have no interest in Stirchley.”

SCD is now negotiating the purchase of land from Seven Capital.





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Understanding Co-ops – Some Basics


The ILO’s Cooperatives Unit marked its Centenary in 2020. On this occasion, the ILO COOP 100 Interview series featured past and present ILO colleagues and key partners who were closely engaged in the ILO’s work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE).

Edgar Parnell was invited to contribute to the Centenary series and in May (2020) he took part in a videoed interview. This, and the transcript giving an account of his remarkable experiences, may be seen here.

Edgar has issued new learning materials about how to run genuine co-ops and other enterprises rooted in self-help and mutual action.

Edgar considers this week’s video Culture is Crucial in Co-ops to be one of the most significant in the series.

There will be more than a dozen videos in this series, starting with Understanding Co-ops – Some Basics. If you wish to see all the videos in this series, which are free to use for educational and similar purposes, they are available at, on YouTube and via Edgar’s website





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Co-op Bank resumes independent audit

In a statement to the Customer Union this week, the bank has said that it will commission an independent audit of its ethical policy report.

The bank’s Ethical Policy, and its commitment not to finance businesses that don’t fit with its customers’ ethical values, is the main reason many of us have stayed loyal to the Co-operative Bank. Knowing that external auditors are making sure the bank sticks to this policy is a fundamental reason we can trust the bank to keep our money out of companies involved in cruel intensive farming, out of arms traders supporting oppressive regimes, and out of the fossil fuels driving climate change coal and oil.

But for the last two years these ethical audits haven’t happened.

Jonathon Porritt, the author, environmentalist and founder of Forum for the Future, wrote a commentary to the bank’s Sustainability Reports for many years, tweets:





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The Customer Union’s latest news about the Co-operative Bank

Extracts from the December newsletter from the Customer Union for Ethical Banking, the independent union for customers of The Co-operative Bank.

In order to meet stronger capital requirements from the Bank of England – MREL, “Minimum Requirement for own funds and Eligible Liabilities” – the bank has successfully raised £200 million capital by paying a 9% rate of return to investors

Customer Union director Shaun Fensom gave a wide-ranging interview on the Save Our Bank campaign and Customer Union to Low Impact – which describes itself as “probably the world’s best sustainable living resource; connecting lifestyle and system change”. Watch or read the interview here.

Save Our Bank’s 2020 Gathering, 21 November

Amid the worsening Covid crisis, the union was forced to hold its Gathering remotely via Zoom this year, and as a result it was the best-attended meeting ever held, with some 60 people in attendance.

Two members of the bank’s senior management team joined the first part of the meeting, The Co-operative Bank plc | Executive Management Team ( Maria Cearns (Managing Director of Customer & People) and Lesley McPherson (Director of Communications and Marketing). Maria and Lesley gave an update on the bank’s year, including how it has been facing the Coronavirus crisis and supporting its customers through the pandemic, and answered a barrage of questions from Customer Union members.

The news of a bid for the bank was discussed and the options for encouraging a return to cooperative ownership. To help inform this question, a specialist panel of experts had been put together, one of whom was able to join the discussion. Plans to campaign for the bank to reinstate external auditing of its Ethical Policy implementation, starting in January were also discussed. A fuller report of the Gathering is available here.

Cerberus makes a bid for the bank

There is understandable alarm at the prospect of a sale to Cerberus Capital Management – a New York based private equity fund named, not very reassuringly, after the mythical three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell – a company with a reputation as an asset-stripper.

The Guardian quoted Customer Union director Ryan Brightwell saying that any new owners must maintain the bank’s ethical position or risk losing customers.

Lucy White (This is Money) reports that campaigners insist that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) must step in to prevent the infamous US firm ‘wrecking more lives’.

The UK Mortgage Prisoners campaign group has appealed to regulators to stop the sale as their members (the so-called mortgage prisoners) have been held hostage for years by Cerberus, and in some cases threatened with sudden eviction from their homes.

Tory , co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fair Business Banking, said he couldn’t think of a worse bidder and wrote to the Bank of England asking them to block the deal.

The Customer Union says the bid underlines the urgency of working to encourage a cooperative bidder for the Co-op Bank. It will continue working to make sure the bank sticks to its ethical principles and if this deal goes ahead, will consult its 1,300 members about whether it will choose to stay with the bank. The union can have more influence on the outcome if all act together.






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Is the sale of CIS immoral?

In January 2019 the Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS General Insurance) announced the £185 million sale of its underwriting business to Markerstudy and confirmed an agreement with Markerstudy to distribute motor and home insurance products. The long delay in gaining regulatory approval from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) has been attributed to Brexit.

Unite has two main concerns

  • 200 insurance workers are to be made redundant – indeed a later article in Insurance Post states that 500 jobs will go
  • and Markerstudy’s statement that it will not engage with union representatives and that employees of Co-op Insurance will be better off without representation from Unite, due to its positive track record as an employer that invests in its people.

Unite national officer Rob MacGregor (left) asked how the Co-op can agree to sell its workforce to a ‘union-busting’ organisation

He asks: “Has Co-op Insurance forgotten its principles in the rush to make a quick buck? This insurance company has long traded on its ethics and yet is now driving a coach and horses through the values of the co-operative movement. There is only one word for this proposed sale: immoral”, ending:

“How can the Co-op agree to sell its workforce to an aggressive union-busting organisation with no regard to its founding ethos?”





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Richer Sounds: another employee-owned company


Richer Sounds is a home entertainment retailer, operating online and through a chain of 53 stores. The business was owned by Julian Richer, the founder and managing director who began buying and selling hi-fi separates at school when he was just 14, before going on to open his first shop on London Bridge Walk five years later in 1978.

In January 2011, Richer Sounds received a Royal Warrant and won 5 ‘Retailer of the Year’ or Best Retailer’ awards from Which? in 2010, 2011, 2015, 2018 and 2019. The company is an accredited holder of the Fair Tax Mark for transparency over tax disclosures and part of the Living Wage Scheme, set up by the Living Wage Foundation, and Julian Richer has backed their Living Hours program, which seeks to curb zero-hour contracts.

In 2018 Richer (right) set up the think tank Taxwatch to investigate and expose aggressive tax avoidance, which, he believes, denies the public purse at least £50 billion a year: “If you think that the entire prison service, which is bursting at the seams, costs only £3 billion a year to run, can you imagine how much good could be done if we collected that money?”

The Church Times reports that, like his Taxwatch colleague, James Timpson, he decided that he would buy a holiday home for the use of his staff (whom he prefers to call “colleagues”). Today, the company has a dozen homes, including apartments in Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Venice. “Every year, more than 70% of our staff use at least one of them for a free holiday.”

In November 2013, Julian Richer announced to the press that, upon his death, he would bequeath 100% of the firm to a trust co-owned by employees of the company.

In May 2019, then aged 60, he transferred ownership to employees by passing 60% of his shares to an employee ownership trust as well as separately paying each employee, excluding directors, a bonus of £1,000 for every year of work from his own pocket to his 500+ employees who had worked an average of 8 years each (circa £4 million). Richer Sounds is now controlled and majority owned by the people who work within the company. News of their performance follows:

Yesterday Tech Digest reported that Richer Sounds was rated top tech retailer in Which? Survey. At the top of its table, the employee-owned company almost had several five-star ratings, with customers praising the retailer for its value for money, customer service and product warranty.





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Workers’ co-op challenges BP’s claim of helping the world to get to a net zero future

See the Bloomberg interview here.

BP held a three-day virtual investor event in September to unveil its plans to shift away from oil and gas. Its CEO, Bernard Looney (above), said

“. . . the energy mix is changing – oil and gas are going to be increasingly challenged – and other forms of energy are going to see incredible growth. That is a likely outcome in each of the scenarios informing our strategy – and is reinforced by the pandemic.

“And therein lies huge opportunity for our company. Rewiring and replumbing the global energy system for a net zero future is going to require trillions of dollars of investment. For a company like bp – with our reach, our relationships and our capabilities – reimagining energy is an opportunity to create value – strengthen our resilience – and help the world get to net zero”.

Culture Unstained is a not-for-profit workers’ co-operative founded in October 2016, a member of the Art Not Oil coalition and part of the growing international movement for #FossilFreeCulture.

Through research, engagement and campaigning it aims to end the fossil fuel sponsorship of culture

Chris Garrard, its co-director has written to the Financial Times, refuting its suggestion that BP’s “net zero” ambition is broadly in line with reaching Paris climate goals of limiting global warming to 1.5C.

He points out that, while BP will not undertake exploration in new regions beyond 2030, it will persist with new exploration around existing finds despite proven fossil fuel reserves already being enough to take the world well beyond 1.5C, insisting:

“Fossil fuel production must be all but phased out by 2050 to meet emissions reduction targets, but BP still plans to be extracting fossil fuels by that date, relying on unproven technologies to address the emissions that would be produced”.In their latest post, earlier this month, Culture Unstained reports in detail, supported by snapshots of documents. that emails and meeting notes, released to them following Freedom of Information requests, reveal attempts by BP, Shell and Equinor to sponsor COP26 climate summit, influence its agenda behind the scenes and ‘partner’ closely with the UK government around the summit.                                                                                  Chris Garrard agrees that a shift in BP’s outlook is encouraging, but stresses that until the company’s strategy fully reflects what a 1.5C target demands, it continues to be more closely aligned with climate breakdown than the Paris goals.



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Edgar Parnell: Enterprises that Change Lives

Edgar Parnell’s latest book will be of interest to any serious student of the co-operative and mutual movement.

In it, Edgar (left) sets out to provide all those involved in all kinds of self-help enterprise (SHEs) with clear guidance on how to run successful enterprises that achieve their purposes and serve their members.

There are two versions of Enterprises that Change Lives, in a range of formats. The UK English version is available at a site which offers the chance to read several pages of the book. A  US English version is available here.

Millions of people worldwide are members of mutually-owned enterprises that can positively change their lives. Together, they control their self-help enterprises (SHEs), such as cooperatives, credit unions, savings & loan associations, mutual insurers, building societies, friendly societies, community enterprises, and many other types.

This distinctive form of enterprise help members to get a better deal by intervening in the market in their best interest, while providing an organization that exists to serve them, helping them, their families and communities to build a better future.

SHEs work for people with widely differing needs; for example, marketing produce, supplying farming inputs, getting healthy food at fair prices, accessing financial services such as credit and savings, insurance and mortgages, providing decent housing, health, and care services, maintaining shops, pubs, and transport in their local area, or by managing their workplaces.

This book specifies the model of enterprise required, sets out the systems and the culture needed to ensure that they are fully effective, but does not advocate doctrinaire approaches; it provides essential concepts and tools that transform how to organize and manage SHEs.

The intention is to help leaders think-through the issues involved so that they can make better decisions, for, without the proper organization and systems, it’s highly unlikely that even the most enthusiastic leader will make a success of their enterprise.

The model specified takes account of centuries of international know-how and encapsulates the ‘foundation practices’ that sustain this form of enterprise. It is designed to ensure self-help enterprises focus on achieving their real purpose and work in the best interest of their members. The book also explains why individuals, communities and nations need SHEs if they are to prosper and what policy-makers, community-developers, and academics can do to help grow and sustain them.





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Scotland The Bread: building a home-grown grain economy

Co-operative & Community Finance gave a loan to Scotland the Bread, via the Just Growth Fund, which focuses on supporting businesses connected with community food and farming work. Scotland The Bread, a Community Benefit Society, ensures that their work to improve the country’s staple food is focussed on people not profit.

Scotland produces far more wheat than is needed to make all the bread eaten in the country, but little, if any, is used by local bread makers. What isn’t fed to animals, distilleries or cars (as ‘biofuels’) is bought by large milling conglomerates for industrial bread production to supplement imported wheat.

A government statistics report says that Scottish wheat is mainly soft wheats that are used mostly for malting and it imports hard wheats for milling, generally used for bread-making, because the country’s climate does not suit hard wheat varieties.

Scotland The Bread is supporting six groups to grow their own healthy bread, from the soil to the slice. The plan is to provide seed from three Scottish heritage wheat varieties that look promising and help each group through a year of growing, milling and baking. Small-scale portable equipment to sow, thresh, clean and mill the home-grown grains will be provided.

In order to produce more nutritious wheats, suitable for low-impact farming, a group of interested people from all parts of the food system, from plant breeders to public health nutritionists has been convened.

A joined-up carbon reduction strategy

Agriculture and food processing account for 18-20% of UK annual greenhouse gas emissions, so it makes sense to reduce the distance wheat travels – across the seas or just between field and plate – to limit the use of fossil fuel-dependent inputs and to reduce the energy intensity of processing.

Local bakeries, rooted in their communities, can supply fresh, properly fermented bread to nearby customers, conserving nutritional value without recourse to the synthetic additives that are deemed essential for long-distance loaves.

Better grain and better bread could help to solve Scotland’s growing health problems

The soaring cost – both personal and financial – of diet-related ill health in Scotland makes creative action urgent.

To build health and food sovereignty requires better grains, less intensive processing and more connection between producers and bread eaters. Research to find more nutritious wheats, suitable for low-impact farming, is under way.

‘Fair trade’ arrangements are needed between farmers, millers and bakers to ensure equitable rewards and honest prices that also allow for the variability of the weather which affects grain quality.

Growing more bread wheat in Scotland would contribute to food sovereignty in an unpredictable global marketplace and, depending on how it is done, could bring meaningful jobs back to the country. 




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