Have our sector representative bodies painted themselves into a corner?

In the past few days the government has announced that it will scrap a £3.3m scheme headed up by the Plunkett Foundation which was offering support to communities seeking to turn local pubs threatened with closure into community-owned co-ops.

And now the Cabinet Office has announced the first twelve ‘pathfinder’ projects (that name will be changed, I bet you!) which will test the spinning-off of public services as mutuals. (You can read Francis Maude’s article here.)

And who will be helping to advise these would-be mutuals? Admittedly, Sunderland Home Care and Baxi are due to be involved, but these seem outweighed by private sector corporates — KPMG, PriceWaterhouseCooper, John Lewis, and Tribal.

Am I the only one that sees key social enterprise and co-op bodies such as SEC and Co-operativesUK being marginalised in this? Or have they in fact painted themselves into a corner? Our key national membership organisations have little if any hands-on development capacity, and on the other hand have spent recent years investing heavily in ‘strategic voice’ functions to which it is increasingly evident no one in government has the slightest intention of listening any longer. Isn’t it time for a rethink — and fast, before those membership subs start to dry up…?

  1. John Goodman Reply

    ALun, you’re right to highlight the government’s failure to listen to its members’ own speeches when it cancels the pubs support programme, and to draw attention to how many kind offers from private sector organisations to be mentors the government has accepted, but the situation isn’t as bleak as you paint it. I can only speak for Co-operatives UK of course, but 3 of the 12 mentors are our members and 7 are employee owned. The co-operative movement’s development capacity doesn’t just belong in Co-operatives UK’s office: there are 30 or so independent co-operative development bodies and a number of other members who provide that service. Having said that. there will certainly need to be greater development capacity in future if the government means what it says and really does enable public services to be delivered by co-operatives and mutuals on a large scale. We’re working on that.

    • Alun Severn Reply

      JOhn, Thanks for your comment. You may be right — and to be fair I think my remarks were aimed more at SEC…

  2. Nick Temple Reply

    Interesting thoughts Alun, though I’d agree with John that you’ll see more involvement from the sector across the broad range of spin-out / social enterprise development than might currently appear.

    It’s also interesting to consider the role that that ‘voice’ function by Co-ops UK, SEC and others has played in advocating / persuading government of the possibilities and opportunities therein. Or, to put it more simply, if they hadn’t spent time making the case, there might not have been much to deliver / develop….

    As the sole policy-oriented person at a delivery / development organisation, the correct balance between the two is always on my agenda….

  3. Michael Lilley Reply

    Thank you Alun for raising this debate. The danger at the moment is the words social enterprise can be hijacked by the private sector to get public sector contracts though cuts of public sector provision and effectively management buy-outs in public sector that come with a package of contracts. I have been around long enough to remember the Bus Companies when management buy-outs were supported as a social enterprise alternative (in fact I remember being the coop dev worker helping them) and 2 years down the line Stage Coach bought them out making the managers (not the workers) millionnaires. Are we going to see NHS manager millionnaires as the private sector see this as a cash cow?
    And so what about the grass-roots enterprises that have struggled from nothing and no secret contract deals but just hard slog. Do we get squeezed in the middle and our hard work is just grabbed. We do need a voice and a bit more street fighting type voice!

  4. Alun Severn Reply

    MIchael — Thanks for your comments. Your analogy with bus company MBOs following deregulation will turn out to be an absolutely accurate one for the NHS, I suspect.

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