British cooperative 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 English town of Rochdale in 1844.

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.

Consumer and food

Main Article: Consumer cooperative and Food cooperative

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.[1]

Gradually, societies expanded and opened further stores or they would merge with a neighbouring society. Today, there is one dominant, national society, The Co-operative Group, a family of businesses led by its principles and owned by its members, with over three million members and 4,500 trading outlets. The family of businesses comprise food, travel, banking, insurance, pharmacy, funeral, legal services, investments, online shop, electrical and beds. Membership is open to everyone as long as they share The Co-operative’s values and principles. Every year members receive a share of the profits that they helped to create, based on the amount made in profits that year and the how much they had spent with any of its businesses.

The Co-operative Group is complemented by a number of large regional societies such as Midlands Co-op, the Midcounties Co-operative and Scotmid. However, many societies 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.[2] Secondly, the United States food co-operative movement was replicated in the UK:[3] some of the independent food co-operatives established in the late 20th and early 21st centuries operate shops.[4]

Credit unions

Main Article: Credit union

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. 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)[5]

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-operatives.

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.[6] However, there are proposals for regulatory reform, set out by HM Treasury and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), which detail transferring registration and regulatory responsibility for credit unions in Northern Ireland to the Financial Services Authority.[7] The main trade association for credit unions throughout the island of Ireland is the Irish League of Credit Unions.


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.


Main Article: Worker cooperatives

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.[8]

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 webstore 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.


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 demutualization of several large co-operatives, including the large regional West Midland Farmers, which was founded in 1916 as the Atworth and District Agricultural Society.[9] West Midland Farmers renamed itself to Countrywide Farmers in 1999, becoming a joint stock company owned by 11,000 farmers.[10]

The 1994 break-up of the Milk Marketing Board eventually formed several large dairy marketing co-operatives, including Milk Marque (since demutualized and renamed Community Foods Group), Dairy Farmers of Britain. Milk Link and First Milk.[11]


Retailers' co-operatives (not to be confused with consumer, food, and 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.[12]
  • UK retailers' and wholesalers' association, Nisa-Today's, organizes along co-operative lines. As of 2008, Nisa-Today's represents 300 wholesalers and 674 retailers, with 5000 convenience stores and small supermarkets, including the Costcutter symbol group.[13]
  • The Dutch association of retailers and wholesalers, SPAR, is very similar to Nisa-Today's, 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 demutualized in 2006 (when it was acquired by its United States affiliate, Florists' Transworld Delivery.)

Support organisations

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.[14] 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 cooperative group and many other cooperative societies.

External links


This page originally adapted from the Wikipedia page: [1]

  1. UK Co-op Milestones, 2008, The Cooperative Group,
  2. Rural Community Shops - The Plunkett Foundation. <>.
  3. Community Food Co-ops go from strength to strength, Chief Medical Officer for Wales,
  4. Type..., By. "Bristol Local Food Directory » Food For All Co-op Shop." Bristol Local Food Directory. Web. <>.
  5. "Just the facts about Credit Unions", Financial Services Authority, Financial Services Authority, 2007
  6. NI Credit Unions And Societies, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment,,fckLR
  7. "Proposals for regulatory reform of credit unions in Northern Ireland", HM Treasury, 2010,
  8. fckLR | last = John Athertonm, "Co-operative Review 2009", Co-operatives UK, 2009,
  10. Countrywide - supplying the rural community