British co-operative movement

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The United Kingdom is home to a widespread and diverse co-operative movement, with over 3 million individual members. Modern co-operation started with the Rochdale Pioneers' shop in the northern English town of Rochdale in 1844. The British co-operative movement is most commonly associated with the The Co-operative brand (best known for its supermarket and Funeralcare brands) which has been adopted by several large consumers' co-operative societies, however in 2010 there were over 4990 registered co-operative businesses operating in the UK. [1] Alongside consumer and retail co-operatives, there exist many prominent agricultural co-operatives, co-operatively run community energy projects, football supporters' trusts, credit unions and worker-owned businesses.

Co-operatives UK is the central membership organisation for co-operative enterprise throughout the UK. This is a co-operative of co-operatives: a co-operative federation. Most kinds of co-operatives are eligible to join Co-operatives UK.

Consumers' Co-operatives (Retail and Food)[edit]

The largest and most recognised part of the UK movement are the many consumers' co-operatives. They are co-operative businesses run for the benefit of their customer members. Of these co-operatives, the largest sector is food retailing, though they have a significant presence in other sectors such as travel agencies and funeral directors. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen a gradual exit by these businesses from the non-food retailing market.

Many co-operatives (by convention known as co-operative societies) started out in a single village, town or city usually with just a single store. Here, members would be customers of the society's trading location and the society would reward these members with a proportion of any profits based on that member's spending with the society, or a dividend. This is a fundamental difference between a co-operative and a joint stock company. Most societies were small, and by 1900, there were 1,439 co-operatives covering virtually every area of the UK.[2] Gradually, many societies expanded by opening further stores or by merging with a neighbouring society. Today, there is one dominant, national society, The Co-operative Group, and a number of large regional co-operative societies such as Central England Co-operative, the Midcounties Co-operative and Scotmid. Many of these large co-operative societies have businesses in a number of sectors, are led by their values principles and owned by their members. Membership is open to everyone and alongside being democratically involved in the decision making of the societies, every year members receive a share of the profits based on the amount made in profits that year and the how much they had spent with any of its businesses. In the case of The Co-operative Group, the society has over six million members and 4,500 trading outlets for its family of business which comprises food, travel (30% stakeholding), banking (20% stakeholding), insurance, funeral, legal services, and electrical products. In contrast to these large regional or national societies, some have remained with a single store such as Shepley Co-op, Coniston Co-op and Allendale Co-op.

The decline, through mergers, of single shop co-operatives, was reversed by two trends. Firstly, around 170 community owned shops were established since 1979, many of which are co-operatives.[3] Secondly, the United States food co-operative movement was replicated in the UK:[4] some of the independent food co-operatives established in the late 20th and early 21st centuries operate shops.[5][6]

List of Retail societies[edit]

Society Website Founded Members Activities

(number of outlets)

Allendale 1862 Food (1)
Bathford 2006 200 (2009) Food (1)
Central England 1854[7] and 1876[8] 329,000 Food (201),[9] Funerals (98),[10] Travel (111),[11] Non-food (44),[12] Petrol (12), Opticians (2)
Chelmsford Star 1867 52,937[13] Food (28), Non-food (2), Travel (3), Funerals (6)
Channel Islands 1919 Food (23), Non food (3: two 'Homemaker' stores and one 'Totalsport' store), Travel (3), Funeral (1 - branded as 'De Gruchy's')
Clydebank Clydebank Co-operative Society 1881 Food (6)
Coniston 1896 Food (1)
The Co-operative Group 1844 6m (estimate) Food (2786), Funeral (900), Insurance, Legal Services, Electrical Products
East of England 1858[14] ≈350,000
Grosmont[15] 1867[16]
Heart of England 1832[17] 179,657[18] Food (33), Non-food (21), Funeral (9), Travel (3), Post Offices (4)
Hawkshead[19] 1881[20]
Langdale Archive copy at the Wayback Machine 1884[21] Food and non-food (1)[22]
Lincolnshire 1861[23] Increase149,247 (2007) Food (69), Bakery (majority-owned), Pharmacies (29),[24] Coffee shops (6),[25] Non-food (4),[26] Post offices (41),[27] Travel (9),[28] Funeral (9),[29] Motors (2), Filling stations (11), Cash registers
Midcounties Food (254), Travel (46), Pharmacy (46), Funerals (81), Childcare (46), Post Offices (92), Energy
The Phone Co-op 1998 Consumer and business telecommunications (National)
Radstock 1867 7,500 Food (14)
Scotmid Food (204)[30]
Seaton Valley Food (1)
Steeple Ashton 2005[31] 230 (2007)[31] Food (1)
Southern 1873 93,000 (2009) Food (120), Funerals (31)
Tamworth Food (14) Non-Food (2)Funeral (8)
Wine Society Wine
Wooldale Food (3)

Utility Co-operatives[edit]

Utility co-operatives provide their members with services such as telecommunications, energy and water.

The Phone Co-op was established in 1998 and provides broadband, fixed line and mobile telecoms services to consumers and organisations. Today the society has more than 10,000 members and provides landline, mobile telephone and internet services, including web hosting and broadband.

The Co-operative Energy is an energy supplier which is wholly owned by the Midcounties Co-operative, making it the only co-operative supplier in the UK energy market. The business sources more than half its energy from renewable sources (the UK average is approximately 15%) with some electricity sourced from several community owned renewable energy schemes, including the Great Dunkilns Farm wind turbine at St Briavels in Gloucestershire[32] and Westmill Wind Farm Co-operative.[33]

Financial Co-operatives[edit]

Credit unions[edit]

Credit Unions are a loan and savings co-operative. Members normally have a 'common bond' to make them eligible for membership. Commons bonds are usually that all members live in a certain locality, work for a common employer or belong to the same trade union, church or association. Because of the need for a common bond, most credit unions remain rather small.[citation needed] Credit Unions are run in a not-for-profit way. This means they use their money to run their services and reward their members – not to pay outside shareholders. They must set money aside each year to ensure they don't go bust. They use any leftover money to provide better services to members or share evenly among savings accounts (a dividend)[34]

In Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), Credit Unions are regulated by the Financial Services Authority who set certain standard and approve the people who hold important positions within a credit union. All credit unions must have the words 'Credit Union' in the title, or in Wales they can have 'Undeb Credyd'. The main trade association for credit unions in Great Britain is the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd (ABCUL). ABCUL is based in Holyoake House, a Grade One listed building in Manchester owned by Co-operativesUK.

In Northern Ireland, Credit Unions are currently regulated by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and registered by its registry function – the Registry of Credit Unions and Industrial and Provident Societies.[35] However, there are proposals for regulatory reform, set out by HM Treasury and the DETI, which detail transferring registration and regulatory responsibility for credit unions in Northern Ireland to the Financial Services Authority.[36] The main trade association for credit unions throughout the island of Ireland is the Irish League of Credit Unions.


Further information: Housing cooperative

Housing co-operatives are owned and democratically controlled by its member-tenants. The Confederation of Co-operative Housing is the UK's national body for housing co-ops.


Further information: Worker cooperative

A worker co-operative is a co-operative owned and democratically controlled by its employees. There are no outside- or consumer-owners in a worker co-operative. Only the workers own shares of the business. It is estimated that there are approximately 403 worker owned and controlled co-operatives in the United Kingdom. In 2009 Co-operativesUK recorded a combined turnover of £144 million with assest of £32 million as part of the co-operative review 2009.[37]

The largest employee-owned company in the UK is the John Lewis Partnership. Though John Lewis is a public limited company, its shares are held in trust on behalf of the employees rather than being traded on the London Stock Exchange. Each employee (referred to as “partner” within John Lewis) has a say in how the company is run and each year they are awarded an equal percentage share of the profits based on their salary. In the past ten years, this has amounted to between one and two months' salary for partners. The John Lewis Partnership operates twenty-six department stores and a web store under the John Lewis division and 187 (Dec 2007) supermarkets in the Waitrose division. The company's presence is more marked in the south and east of England though it is gradually expanding to other areas of Great Britain.

Suma is the largest independent wholefood wholesaler-distributor in the United Kingdom and a workers' co-operative. Suma specialise in vegetarian, Fairtrade, organic, ethical and natural products.

The Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative is the oldest workers co-operative in Scotland, being established in 1977. It has since expanded and now operates eight stores across Scotland and northern England as well as an online sales platform.


Agricultural marketing and supply co-operatives are owned by farmers.

Mole Valley Farmers is a larger example of a supply co-operative founded by farmers. The late twentieth century saw the demutualisation of several large co-operatives, including the large regional West Midland Farmers, which was founded in 1916 as the Atworth and District Agricultural Society.[38] West Midland Farmers renamed itself to Countrywide Farmers in 1999, becoming a joint stock company owned by 11,000 farmers.[39]

The 1994 break-up of the Milk Marketing Board eventually formed several large dairy marketing co-operatives, including Milk Marque (since demutualised and renamed Community Foods Group), Dairy Farmers of Britain. Milk Link and First Milk.[40][41]

Community Co-operatives[edit]

Community Shops[edit]

Community shops are not dissimilar from food co-ops but are often found in more remote villages and provide some of the services of a convenience store but also frequently have cafe, healthcare or library services. As of 2015, there are 330 community shops in the UK. [42]

Community Pubs[edit]

Community pubs have largely resulted from situations where a pub chain has chosen a pub, often in a village which is otherwise under-served by pubs. Commonly community pubs are established by listing the pub as an Asset of Community Value under the Government's Localism Act before a group of local people raise sufficient funds to purchase and re-open the pub. Funds are often raised using a community shares scheme and are subsequently run as co-operatives. As of 2015, there are 35 community pubs registered in the UK.[43] In some situations a community pub may also incorporate a community shop.

Examples of community pubs include: The Angler's Rest, Bamford; [44] Fox and Hounds, Charwelton;[45] and The Rose and Crown, Hexham.[46]

Community Energy Co-operatives[edit]

A number of community-owned co-operatives have been established to own and run small-scale renewable energy projects. Many of these operate as onshore wind farms, small-scale solar power installations or as micro-hydro projects. Financing for such schemes is often a combination of community shares and loan funding and surplus funds are often distributed (once interest to loan providers and shareholders is paid) to community groups or local development projects. Examples of such co-operatives include the Baywind Energy Co-operative and Torrs Hydro.

Local Exchange Trading Systems[edit]

Further information: Local Exchange Trading Systems


Retailers' co-operatives (not to be confused with retail consumer co-operatives, above) provide marketing and wholesaling services to retail businesses.

  • Independent retail consumer co-operatives are corporate members of The Co-operative Group, a secondary co-operative. The Co-operative Group manages the Co-operative Retail Trading Group, servicing 3200 food stores, including its own and those of its corporate members.[47] The Group also provides other collective buying, marketing and distribution functions.
  • Members of the Arizona hoteliers' marketing association, Best Western, have 280 hotels in the UK, as of 2008.[48]
  • UK retailers' and wholesalers' association, Nisa, organises along co-operative lines. As of 2008, Nisa represents 300 wholesalers and 674 retailers, with 5000 convenience stores and small supermarkets, including the Costcutter symbol group.[49]
  • The Dutch association of retailers and wholesalers, SPAR, is very similar to Nisa, but its UK membership is smaller. As of 2008, SPAR members have 2500 outlets in the UK.
  • Most retail florists are members of Interflora, a former co-operative that demutualised in 2006 (when it was acquired by its United States affiliate, Florists' Transworld Delivery.)

Support organisations[edit]

In addition to Co-operatives UK, the central membership organisation for British co-operatives, there are a variety of other support organisations and secondary co-operatives serving the sector. The Plunkett Foundation promotes co-operation in rural communities, including the agricultural and retail sectors.[50] There are several other sectoral co-operative bodies, such as the Confederation of Co-operative Housing and Supporters Direct.

The Co-operative College has, since 1919, served the co-operative sector in terms of developing members and managers, working internationally and developing new co-operative ideas. Various independent co-operative development agencies assist the formation of new co-operative enterprises. Co-operative & Community Finance provides financing for new ventures. The Co-operative Press publishes The Co-operative News, the main news organ of the movement.

The Co-operative Party was formed to promote the co-operative sector in Parliament. Retail societies and other co-operatives are among the members of the party, which works with the Labour Party to elect those sympathetic to co-operative issues and to promote co-operation and mutuality. The think tank and consultancy Mutuo was originally developed by the party and now operates independently across the wider mutual sector in the United Kingdom.

The Woodcraft Folk is an organisation widely considered to be the youth arm of the co-operative movement. Woodcraft Folk groups teach the principles of cooperation to children and is financially supported by the Co-operative Group and many other cooperative societies.

The Wales Co-operative Centre is a co-operative development organisation based in Wales. They deliver business support for groups looking to set up co-operatives and social enterprises, and also deliver support around the themes of employee buyout and co-operative consortia working. They also provide support for organisations who are exploring setting up housing co-operatives.

Students for Cooperation is a federation of 30 student co-operatives across the UK. The organisation works to support new and existing student co-ops, and to promote and raise awareness of the co-operative model amongst students.


  1. ^
  2. ^ "UK Co-op Milestones". Co-op Online. The Co-operative Group. Archived from the original on 11 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  3. ^ Village Retail Services Association. "Directory of community owned shops in England, Scotland and Wales". Plunkett Foundation. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  4. ^ Chief Medical Officer for Wales (29 January 2007). "Community Food Co-ops go from strength to strength". Welsh Assembly Government. Retrieved 2008-08-13. [dead link]
  5. ^ DR (27 April 2006). "Food For All, Hartcliffe Food Co-op". Bristol Friends of the Earth. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  6. ^ "Boscombe Wholefood Co-operative". Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  7. ^ As Derby Co-operative Provident Society, which became Midlands Co-operative Society in 1995
  8. ^ As Peterborough Equitable Industrial Co-operative Society, which became Anglia Regional Co-operative Society in 1987
  9. ^ 30 from Anglia Regional, 171 from Midlands Co-operative
  10. ^ 18 from Anglia Regional, 80 from Midlands Co-operative
  11. ^ 11 from Anglia Regional, 100 from Midlands Co-operative
  12. ^ 38 from Anglia Regional, 6 from Midlands Co-operative
  13. ^ "Annual Report and Financial Statements" (PDF). Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society. 27 January 2007. p. 5. Retrieved 2008-01-11. 
  14. ^ As Norwich Co-operative Society
  15. ^ "Grosmont". Co-op Online Directory. The Co-operative Group. Retrieved 2008-08-12. [dead link]
  16. ^ "Grosmont Co-operative Society Limited, number 992R". Mutuals Public Register. FSA. Retrieved 2008-08-12. 
  17. ^ As Lockhurst Lane Industrial Co-operative Society
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  19. ^ "Hawkshead & District Co-op Society Limited". Co=op Online. The Co-operative Group. Retrieved 2008-08-12. [dead link]
  20. ^ "Hawkshead and District Co-operative Society Limited, number 2242R". Mutuals Public Register. FSA. Retrieved 2008-08-12. 
  21. ^ Archived 5 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine
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  24. ^ "Lincoln Co-operative Chemists Ltd Publication Scheme" (PDF). Lincolnshire Co-operative. p. 3. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 
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  26. ^ "Home". Lincolnshire Co-operative. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 
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  28. ^ "The co-operative travel". Lincolnshire Co-operative. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 
  29. ^ "Funeral Arrangements: Our Funeral Homes". Lincolnshire Co-operative. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 
  30. ^ 11 from Penrith Co-operative, 129 already within Scotmid
  31. ^ a b Anna Minton (October 2007). "Rural innovation in Wiltshire". 'Transforming Neighbourhoods: A collection of stories about community engagement (IDeA and Young Foundation). 
  32. ^ "Wind turbine at St Briavels farm prepared for switch-on". BBC. 29 September 2012. Retrieved 21 April 2014. 
  33. ^ "Westmill Wind Farm". Retrieved 21 April 2014. 
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  35. ^ "NI Credit Unions And Societies". DETI website. Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Retrieved 2010-07-01. 
  36. ^ "Proposals for regulatory reform of credit unions in Northern Ireland" (PDF). HM Treasury. 30 March 2010. p. 68. Retrieved 2010-07-01. 
  37. ^ John Atherton (11 December 2009). "Co-operative Review 2009". Co-operativesUK. 
  38. ^ "Wiltshire Community History: Melksham". Wiltshire County Council library service. Retrieved 2008-10-06. [dead link]
  39. ^ Countrywide – supplying the rural community
  40. ^ "Business: The Company File: Milk Marque split 'welcome'". BBC Online Network (BBC News). 19 September 1999. Retrieved 2008-10-06. 
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  48. ^ "About Us". Best Western Hotels GB. Retrieved 2008-05-20. 
  49. ^ "About Us". Nisa. Retrieved 2008-05-20. 
  50. ^ "About us". Plunkett Foundation. Retrieved 11 August 2009. 

External links[edit]