Dan Roberts presents three takeaways from the recent Cross Party Group for Co-operatives and Mutuals, which received a huge attendance.
Times of crisis have been too common during recent years, and we can become numb to the language we use to describe them. The ‘cost of living crisis’ is a stark description of the very real challenges we are facing – people in our communities, our neighbours, ourselves. Solving these problems, and re-shaping our economy and our society so the worst off aren’t always bearing the brunt of them, requires a genuine understanding of what is going on, and of the causes of inequality and poverty. That’s why co-operatives are in the best position to address these challenges, and why all of us in the sector must step up again, as we did during Covid.
The Senedd’s Cross Party Group for Co-operatives and Mutuals, chaired by Vikki Howells MS and supported by Cwmpas, recently met to discuss this challenge. The group regularly meets to promote the co-operative model, and the topic of this meeting was how it can provide short and long-term answers to the circumstances our communities have been put in. We brought speakers from 3 organisations across Wales and across different sectors together to speak about the crisis. The demand for places at the virtual meeting was unprecedented, with over 250 tickets booked – the maximum possible, after several extensions. The challenges are growing and deepening, but the people of Wales are again coming together to find co-operative solutions. Here were the three key things we learned.
Credit Unions in Wales are adapting and collaborating to find co-operative solutions for their members
The first speaker was Ann Francis from Cambrian Credit Union. Credit unions are not-for-profit, member-owned savings and loans providers. According to Credit Unions of Wales, ‘when you join a credit union you become a member of a worldwide group of financial cooperatives dedicated to improving the financial wellbeing of millions of people’.
Credit unions have overwhelming evidence for the extent of the challenges individuals in our communities are facing. Cambrian Credit Union’s Annual Christmas Survey showed the rise in the number of people facing financial challenges – 48% are expecting to borrow to pay bills, and 760 of 780 respondents said they would be borrowing to pay for Christmas. 22% said they would be using a payday or doorstep lender, up from 7% in 2020. Ann discussed how credit unions in Wales are coming together to co-operate and develop new solutions to the crisis, and are developing a shared strategy and action plan to create social value. They are working with Cwmpas on a new robust constitution to underpin this.
Community energy projects can help in the short-term and build a more resilient sector in the longer-term
Leanne Wood has recently taken up the role of Director of Community Energy Wales, a not for profit membership organisation that provides assistance and a voice to community groups working on energy projects in Wales. Leanne discussed how community groups are embedded in their local areas across Wales, and their members are working in different ways to support their communities. Partneriaeth Ogwen are developing foodshare schemes, Egni Co-op are developing energy solutions, and others are developing car clubs as solutions to transport costs.
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The development of community energy can also contribute to a more resilient and sustainable energy sector. The annual State of the Sector survey conducted by Community Energy Wales indicated that Welsh community energy projects “have generated a broad range of social, economic and environmental impacts, fostering sustainable communities”. The results indicated the significance of community renewable projects in reducing CO2 emissions, but as well as this, they played a key role in educating and engaging local communities in climate change and fostering local support through partnership and collaboration.
Leanne invited more people to get involved with the community and co-operative energy sector. If this sounds like something you’d like to do,you can join the mailing list on Community Energy Wales’s website, get involved with community share offers, engage in political campaigning and lobbying, and even set up your own groups. The Community Energy Wales website has much more information on the sector and a map displaying all of the projects across Wales – there are many, and Wales continues to lead the way in a UK context, but this is a time for us all to get involved and use this time of crisis as an opportunity to transform our communities for the better.
Community shares offer an opportunity for communities to protect key local assets during difficult economic times
The final speaker was Hannah Morris, from Community Shares Wales. At a time of economic crisis, many of the assets or services that provide so much value to our communities could be under threat of closure. A form of crowdfunding where members of the community come together to buy shares in a local asset, community shares can be used as a fundraising initiative to build stronger, more vibrant and independent communities. They are often used to save vital services and amenities such as community facilities, pubs, and shops, or can fund new organisations, such as financing renewable energy schemes and supporting local food growing projects. These organisations are then rooted in their communities with democratic control and are resilient – our data shows that 92% are still trading after 5 years, compared to 42% for private companies.
Co-operation is more than just an idea, but a workable alternative to our current economic model.
The Community Shares Wales Resilience Project is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund Wales and delivered by Cwmpas, and helps communities raise investment to protect and strengthen the things that matter to them. Not everybody will be able to buy shares during the economic crisis we are currently going through, but for some it provides a means of supporting your local community and saving vital assets that provide vital social value. The Community Shares Wales team has the skills and experience to help communities across Wales throughout the process.
The extremely high interest in this event, the variety of sectors discussed, and the Q&A session that followed the presentations demonstrate that co-operative models and values already make a significant contribution in Wales, but there is a clear demand and will for this to grow even further. Cwmpas is a co-operative development agency with a focus on building a fairer, greener economy and a more equal society, where people and planet come first.
Vikki Howells MS closed the meeting by thanking the speakers and encouraging attendees to remain engaged with the Cross Party Group, which gives a platform to these models and ideas in the Welsh democratic process. There is already so much inspiring work happening in Wales, proving that co-operation is more than just an idea, but a workable alternative to our current economic model. Wales has the potential to lead the way, and it is essential for our communities that it does so.
If you would like to learn more about the support Cwmpas can provide, to community groups, enterprises and public sector organisations seeking to embed social value in their own practices, visit our website or get in touch via [email protected].
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