Co-op movement thrives as most famous member continues overhaul


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The Independent Online

The Co-operative Group may still be soul-searching after a disastrous few years, but it seems there are more co-operative members and thriving member-owned businesses than ever before.

According to the annual report by Co-operatives UK on the state of the movement, there are now 15 million members and 6,796 businesses across the country. However, total revenues for the sector dropped for the first time since records began in 2007.

The co-operative sector as a whole had turnover of £37bn a year, up 15 per cent since 2010. However, this was down 2.8 per cent on the previous year, mostly because 80 per cent of the Co-operative Bank was sold off to hedge funds and other private investors as part of its rescue.

Customer-owned retailers still make up the largest proportion of the sector’s turnover, thanks mainly to the John Lewis Partnership behind the department stores and Waitrose supermarkets – which is now the single largest co-operative business in the UK.

The report also found that co-operative businesses more than twice as likely to survive for five years than their traditional rivals.

Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, said: “The new figures show that the co-operative sector is a large, loved and successful part of the British economy.”

One of the fast-growing areas in the co-op movement is energy, according to the report, with an increase in renewable energy co-operatives. Co-op farms are second behind retail in terms of size.

Mr Mayo added: “Innovation and growth amongst co-operatives large and small, in everything from solar power to social care, have meant that the co-operative sector is growing and in good health. Because of its breadth, the co-operative sector is a resilient sector.”

However, he admitted: “The Co-operative Group is coming out of a challenging period into one of renewal, and this, of course, has had an impact on the sector.”

The Co-operative Group – the domininant co-operative society in the UK – recently completed the sell-off of some of its businesses, including farming, pharmacies and financial services. It follows the sell-off of part of the bank after losses of £2.5bn across the group after years of mis-management.

A £124m pre-tax profit last year helped put 2013’s disaster behind it, but its bosses, including chairman Allan Leighton and its chief  executive Richard Pennycook, were cautious, pointing out the ongoing supermarket price war.

At a fiery annual general meeting last month, Co-op members questioned Mr Leighton and Mr Pennycook over executive pay and new rules introduced, giving members an individual vote, rather than block votes, as in the past.

The organisation also agreed at the meeting to continue funding Co-operative Party MPs, including Labour deputy leader candidate Stella Creasy and the shadow Chancellor, Chris Leslie.