Co-ops and Commons: Exciting Convergences in the UK

By David Bollier

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New Start magazine, a British magazine associated with the Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Strategies, has just come out with a terrific issue (#525, October 2014) about co-operatives and commons. The essays focus on how “more democratic forms of ownership – of land, housing, workplaces and the public realm – can revive our places.”

While most of the essays deal with British co-ops and commons, the lessons and strategies mentioned have a relevance to many other places. Consider land ownership, a topic that is rarely a part of progressive political agendas. Steve Bendle, director of a group called Community Land and Finance, offers a clear-eyed assessment of how government is obsessed with enhancing the value of land for landowners and developers – while largely ignoring how land could be used to serve citizens, taxpayers and the wider community.

Unneeded land and government buildings, for example, are generally put up for sale on the market rather than used to serve the needs of a community for housing, work spaces or civic infrastructure. The assumption is that privatized, market-driven uses of the assets will yield the greatest “value” (narrowly defined as return on investment to private investors).

When government (i.e., taxpayers) finances new roads, subways or rail systems, the market value at key locations and buildings invariably rises. But government rarely does much to capture this value for the public.

Bendle concludes: “So developers and landowners make profits, while the public sector struggles to secure a contribution to infrastructure costs or to deliver affordable homes despite successive attempts to change the planning system.”

There’s a better, more commons-friendly way, says Bendle: Use community–owned land and revolving co-operative capital finance as “the platform for a wide range of ‘apps’ including co-ops, community land trusts or co-operative land banks at the garden city scale. What these co-operative place-making social enterprises could deliver is not just housing but could include renewable energy, community food and agriculture, social care co-operatives, car share schemes and community transport.”

Bendell quotes Winston Churchill, writing in 1909: “Roads are made, streets are made, railway services are improved, electric light turns night into day, electric trams glide swiftly to and fro, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is sensibly enhanced.”

There are many other compelling features in the special issue of New Start, edited by Clare Goff:

Q & A with Tessy Britton: Building an Urban Commons: Tessy Britton has documented people-led initiatives across the country. She talks to New Start about having her imagination captured by the idea of widescale creative civic participation.

Lambeth Council: Learning Lessons in Co-operation: An empty shop in south London is helping Lambeth council workers change the way they do their jobs. Clare Goff visits the ‘co-operative council’ and finds a changed conversation taking place.

How to…. Create Tomorrow’s Garden City: Winner of the Wolfson Economics Prize for their vision of a 21st century garden city, Urbed’s Nicholas Falk talks through his winning entry and urges new garden cities to capture the ‘common wealth’ for local good.

Local Policies for Building Common Wealth: We need to move beyond ‘projects’ and towards policies that help build and sustain community wealth, says John Duda of the Democracy Collaborative.

10 Ideas for Change: Co-operative Local Economies: Rooted in community and in the democratisation of ownership, co-operative structures allow citizens to reclaim power over their workplaces, their open spaces, their housing, and public realm. Here are ten ideas for building grassroots democratic economies.

How Local Authorities Are Supporting Community Land Trusts: There are now 170 CLTs across England and Wales, half of which have formed in the last two years. This rising movement builds on a rich history in the UK of defence and stewardship of the commons, which includes the three thousand valiant rebels killed by the state in 1549, whilst protesting the illegal enclosure of common lands.

Land: the elephant in the room. Pat Conaty explores how Letchworth, the first garden city, was able to capture lease income from the land by having co-operative ownership of land and infrastructure. The revenue from commercial buildings could then be reinvested continuously in community improvements.

We need a social economy. Ed Mayo of Co-operatives UK describes the formation of a Social Economy Alliance that is bringing a specific policy agenda to politicians.

Places as platforms for civic collaboration. Joost Beundermanof Civic Systems Labs proposes that we regard government as a platform that makes people true collaborators and supports them in contributing what they want — instead of of government simply executing tasks set by others.

Recommended reading!


Originally published in bollier.org

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