Making Wales a Co-operative Country

Keynote speech to Co-operative Country Conference, Principality Stadium on 23 June 2017

CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

Thank you chair and may I say how delighted I am to be at this conference today amongst co-operators and to hear the stories of people who are making a reality on the ground of the very special principles that so many of us cherish and advocate and that so many of us feel passionately are principles whose time has come in the political and economic age in which we live.

I was driving back from Llandudno earlier this year and stopped off in Newtown where Robert Owen, of course one of the founding figures of the co-operative movement and an instrumental figure in the history of social justice in wales, is commemorated in a statue. And visiting the statue reminded me of what Robert Owen in his writings once said, using the language of another era – “man, he said is a creature of circumstance”. Man is a creature of circumstance.

When I first heard that phrase it suggested two things to me. Firstly a point of interpretation if you like – that human beings understand the world in very practical, pragmatic ways. They don’t in general tend to the theoretical, they tend to the circumstances in which they find themselves. They see the world through the realities of their lives. Through their lived experience. That is why it is so important today to be hearing of the practical steps being taken in Wales to take forward the co-operative agenda.

And the second point – a point of inspiration if you like is the one which is the backdrop to what I want to talk about and that –as a social reformer Robert Owen knew this well – circumstances can be changed, the circumstances in which people find themselves can be changed. And that the task of doing that is one that falls in part to reformers like those in this room – and importantly to governments, politicians and to campaigners.

So I want to look at some of the ways in which the Welsh Government is and can help to create a genuinely co-operative Wales.

Can I say before I look at some of those ways –that as well as being the Assembly Member for Neath, I am also the chair of the cooperative party group in the assembly. And I am delighted to report that as a result of the election of several new members we now have the largest co-operative representation in the assembly that we have had to date. 15 members of the Co-operative Party now sit in the Assembly with 11 of us having stood as official Coop Party candidates. It is great to know that the cooperative presence in the assembly is growing.

Those who pay attention to these things will have calculated that there are now more Co-op members than Conservative or Plaid Cymru members in the chamber – That’s not to make a partisan point, as through the Cross Party Group on Cooperatives and Mutuals this agenda draws support from all parties.

And we have co-operators at the heart of government. Vaughan Gething at health and wellbeing, Mick Antoniw as Counsel General, Rebecca Evans as minister for social services and public health and Alun Davies with the lifelong learning and Welsh language portfolio.

So with co-operators at the heart of the political process politically at least Wales really is a cooperative country and indeed the scale of the political reach of co-operators imposes a special responsibility on us all to ensure that the co-operative voice is heard – and most importantly that it translates into action.

But we are fortunate in Wales that we have a Welsh Labour government which is committed to supporting the cooperative sector in all parts of the economy and indeed in public services.

Economy

The growth and alongside that, the reform of our economy is for me the number one priority we face. And we know that cooperatives and social enterprises play a significant and growing part in our economy.

The government is about to announce its new economic strategy and it – I know the Cabinet Secretary is keen that the health of our economy is assessed with measures other than simply GVA and indeed the number of jobs created, and that we are also looking intelligently at how economic performance affects wellbeing. This broader, more nuanced approach, should support the growth of a co-operative economy.

This I think is a live debate in the context of the city deals – how to ensure that they deliver inclusive growth and support the role of co-operatives and social enterprise. That hasn’t been a feature of the discussion to date and I believe it needs to be. Those with an interest may want to come along to a cross party group discussion in the Senedd on the city deals and co-operatives in July – the Wales Co-op Centre and my office can provide you with details.

There may also be new opportunities for co-operatives and social enterprise as we develop the South Wales Metro and the new rail franchise.

This next franchise will be different from traditional franchises in that we have created Transport for Wales as a not for profit company initially tasked with designing and letting the next franchise and metro. The plan is that Transport for Wales will only let those contracts that it has to on a commercial basis. Where they do, the profits from those services will be at a capped margin with excess profits reinvested back into the wider transport system. This will mean the franchise will look more like a concession.

That means once the franchise has been let, we will expect Transport for Wales to then oversee the management and join up of services, including items such as marketing and integrated ticketing. It’s here that new opportunities open up for elements of the franchise – such as car parking, advertising, station management, integrated ticketing etc – that could be run on a co-operative model.
As you may also know be aware, Carwyn’s speech to Welsh Labour Conference in March reaffirmed the government’s commitment to making Wales a fair work nation where everyone can access better jobs closer to home. Part of this has been the thinking about how we can utilise procurement in a more creative and joined up way to support the creation of more and better paid jobs in the communities that need them most. Work is underway on four better jobs closer to home commercial pilots.

These pilots will provide the government with an interesting space in which they could develop co-operative models of supported employment. There will be announcements on this in due course but I would urge you to engage with the Welsh Government on this to ensure that cooperative models play a full part on developing this idea.

There has also been progress in building the support provided for the sector within the economy generally – the government has launched Social Business Wales, targeting business support at the social enterprise and co-op sector and is in the process of constructing a Development Bank for Wales which will enhance co-ops access to funding.

The Cabinet Secretary told me in the chamber this week that there is going to be much greater alignment between the work of Business Wales and the new bank, recognising the need in particular to do more to support smaller businesses.

Housing

We believe that everyone should have access to a good quality, affordable home and co-operative housing has a real part to play. At the Co-operative Party Conference last year I participated in a panel listening to the success of the home farm village co-operative housing pilot in Ely, here in Cardiff. Over the last year, the Welsh Government provided capital funding of £408k to Cadwyn Housing Association for the development of 41 properties. Members of the co-operative were supported and trained by the Wales Co-operative Centre and the Confederation of Co-operative housing.

Working together, these partners developed the first leasehold co-op in wales. Home Farm residents have control over the management of their homes and the development of their community.

There are many, many individual examples of government-backed projects like this.
Co-operative housing has a small but growing part to play in achieving the government target of 20,000 affordable homes.

But the Wales Co-operative Centre, working with Welsh Government and partners including the confederation of co-operative housing have produced an excellent strategy. The strategy aims to:
• Scale up the sector and contribute to our 20,000 affordable homes target.
• Provide easily accessible information and guidance about housing co-operatives.
• Develop and implement a means of assessing the performance and impact of housing co-operatives.
• Conduct a dialogue with local authorities and housing associations about the programme and increasing the number of partners supporting schemes.
• Help develop a diverse range of schemes – including different tenures, income levels, housing needs and geographical locations.
• Strengthen and unite the sector, enabling networks to come together.
• Consider how the development of co-operative housing can become self-sustaining.

And, I hope, we will also see more support for renewable energy production under the new Environment Act with a focus from Natural Resources Wales on proactive development of the community renewables sector. There have been some encouraging signs in terms of the specification of small scale renewable contracts.

Public services

The government has also been looking at the role of co-operatives in our public services. It has consulted on the role of co-operative principles in the governance of schools and is committed to mainstreaming cooperative principles in schools. We look forward to practical progress on that front.

And another major first here in wales. The Social Services and Well-being act came into effect last year. The Act puts a positive duty on local authorities to promote co-operatives and social enterprises to provide care, support and preventative services in their area. Co-operative Group members have had discussions with the minister to press for a proactive approach to making sure this duty is met and that it doesn’t just stagnate on the statute books.

This is part of a wider agenda to look to social enterprise models in public services when they face challenge. The Action Plan for Alternative Public Service Delivery Models published in March last year before the Assembly Election remains government thinking, and charts a course for the Welsh Government to nurture the growth of the co-op sector in public service delivery. I would like to see the government commit to reporting publicly against this plan. This is an enormous challenge, not least in terms of capacity building, but also because it poses genuinely difficult choices for our colleagues in some parts of the trade union movement and so needs to be in seen in the wider context of the resilience of some parts of our public services under immense pressure.

The other dimension to touch upon here briefly is the management of community assets by co-operative and social enterprise models. I submitted a bill proposal to the last backbench legislative ballot proposing a right to acquire community assets that were at risk of disposal, to be owned and managed on a community basis. This mirrored the best parts of equivalent legislation in Scotland and England. The proposal was not successful but the Government has indicated an intention to bring forward a made in Wales Right to Acquire of this sort.

Role of the Welsh Government
The Welsh Government listened to co-operators’ calls when it set up the Wales Co-operative and Mutuals Commission under former Assembly Member Prof. Andrew Davies in 2014. The Commission’s remit was to make recommendations on public services and job creation and wealth. Within the last year the commission published an update report, commissioned by the welsh government to review progress against the commission’s recommendations.

We welcome that commitment to accountability and I am sure we would all welcome a pledge to review progress against those recommendations at regular intervals again in future.

In the term ahead, we want the Welsh Government to ensure that the recommendations of the Commission are driven forward across government.

Whether it’s in specific sectors or support for co-operatives generally – be it finance, governance, capacity building or access to markets, we are at the cusp of what needs to be, in policy terms, a transformative era for co-ops in wales.
But we need to make sure we have the skills and capacity within government and the public sector to take this forward.

It seems to me we are good at identifying opportunities for utilising cooperative models in public service delivery etc, but I wonder whether the Welsh Government got the skills and capacity and level of comfort and understanding of the practical delivery of co-operative alternatives, within the civil service to then implement/capitalise on those ideas effectively? I think we should look at doing a skills audit to bolster parts of the organisation that can then develop some of the proposals we are considering.

Conclusion

But there is much to be cautiously optimistic about in the development of the Co-operative Agenda in Wales but, I want to look ahead and say something about the decision of people in Wales — as across the rest of the UK — to vote for Brexit, and what this means for us as a co-operative movement.

There are many ways to interpret the decision we took last year but for me it is a pretty safe bet that one of the issues weighing on the mind of those voting to leave was the question of participation. Or rather the absence of participation. The absence of participation in decisions and choices rapidly changing their communities around them. In ways which set them back.

We had people in communities which had seen great investment from the EU voting to leave in large numbers.

But communities can’t be expected to value assets they don’t feel they own. Too often, across the UK, European projects were happening to communities, not with communities. So we need to bring our communities into the conversation about public priorities with a programme of widespread, deep public engagement. It would seem to me that a co-operative approach, based on the core principle of participation, is a very good place to start.

The challenge from Brexit to our economy and public services –and the opportunity for us as a co-op movement is immense – the question if are we up for it. I hope the answer to that is yes. Yes, we can offer a participative, innovative, fairer, resilient version of our economy post-Brexit. Yes, we can offer a participative, innovative, fairer, resilient approach to public services too.

I started my speech speaking about Robert Owen and looking over our shoulder at one of the major figures of the history of social justice in Wales. But here in Wales of all places, we should not be content with celebrating our radical heritage. We should also set ourselves the challenge of a bright, radical future. A genuinely co-operative future.

We have a long way to go but if any nation of the United Kingdom is a co-operative country, Wales is that place.

Diolch yn fawr.