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Public parks and co-ops

an initial draft briefing paper drafted by Adrian Ashton1 for the management committee of a the Friends of local Park, January 2014

9th January 2014

Introduction This purpose if this paper is principally to contribute to the Friends of a local Park’s exploration of structures and governance models that might best enable it to pursue its vision (many are currently unincorporated) – and it is currently researching different models to this end (including companies and charities); this paper will profile the arguments as to the benefits that adopting a co-operative model might offer. It is not meant as a definitive guide, but rather an introduction which will be used to structure more detailed discussions subsequently between the Friends’ Management Committee and Adrian Ashton (amongst others), before it makes a final decision later this year as to what legal structure it should adopt. In making this draft paper openly available, it is hoped that others with an interest in this subject will offer comment, critique and further contribution – any subsequent redraft will reference their support and involvement and also be made publicly available

What is co-op? An overarching definition of a co-operative is that it is an association of people and/or organisations with a shared interest who come together to support each other collectively realise their common goal, that individually they would not be able to succeed in; they can be identified more specifically through their globally agreed values and principles2 (all of which would seem to be a good ‘fit’ with the ethos of the Friends): Values - self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity Principles - voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education training and information, co-operation amongst co-operatives, concern for community Co-operatives should also (in theory) make sustaining and growing a body of membership easier and more effective through there needing to be clearly defined rights, responsibilities and rewards (although these will already exist to an extent within an incorporated body, they take on a legal dimension within an incorporated co-operative).
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Examples of other co-op parks and open spaces Within the UK, parks and public spaces have historically been managed by local authorities, or held in Trust by other charities, offering little scope or opportunity for co-operatives (or any other model) to emerge. However, there are some examples, such as the Park Hill Allotments and Gardens Society in Croydon which illustrate how the co-operative model is being used successfully in this context – having emerged from a single allotment society originally, the Society now manages various other allotment sites on behalf of local authority; (all allotments are also forms of co-operative/mutual through their plot holders being the members who collectively manage the overall site for their mutual benefit). Lambeth Council in London are also actively looking to encourage more community participation in the management and decision-making affecting public parks through their ‘Co-operative Parks’ programme, recognising that the Co-operative model is one that can best engage and sustain local residents’ involvement3.

Different legal forms Some of the confusions that arise in relation to co-operatives stems from their not being limited to a single legal form: within the UK they can be incorporated as Limited Liability Partnerships, Community Interest Companies, companies (limited by either share or guarantee), or Industrial and Provident Societies. However, in instances where the co-operative exists to create a wide community benefit, Industrial and Provident Societies structured as ‘Community Benefit Societies’ are usually the norm. This is for several reasons: 1) although regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, they can also apply for charitable tax status via HMRC; 2) it allows for finance to be raised through ‘community shares’4: a tax-efficient way for individuals and local businesses to invest in the co-operative (but it will need to assure itself that its operating/business plan can recognise and reward these investments in some way at a future date – this could be in-kind as well as/instead of cash); 3) the governing legislation explicitly reflects the values and principles of co-operatives (shared largely in part with the Friends).

Different governance forms Another reason why there can be confusion around the co-operative model is that just as with their legal forms, there can also be a range of governance forms which will reflect their primary
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membership/stakeholder group: within worker co-ops, these are employees; within housing co-ops, the tenants; within consumer co-ops, the customers... However, as before, where the co-operative exists to create a wide community benefit, they are usually structured as ‘community co-ops’ – this model allows for the wider community to come together on equal terms to collectively manage and benefit from the co-op, and can be created with a ‘multi-stakeholder’ membership model to acknowledge and reflect the differences between the principle stakeholder groups (local businesses, local residents, local community groups, local residents, etc). A comparative example to this is that of co-operative trust schools and academies5, where this model is proven to work well in engaging different stakeholders to the school (teachers, parents, pupils, employers, etc) through regular forums for each of them, each of which feed into the co-ops’ overarching management and governance. Within the Friends, this could be easily applied to also allow for different ‘sub-groups’ to be more easily formed to lead on different themes, projects or strands of activity while being integrated into a coherent ‘bigger picture’ for the Park. It also ensures that all parts of the community are represented and can influence the co-op in a meaningful way.

Additional benefits to being a co-op In addition to the benefits that adopting a co-operative form could offer to the Friends as identified above: assurance of involvement by all parts of the wider community protection of values and ethos able to gain charitable tax status political credibility members more engaged easier for members to support aspects of the Park they are passionate in ways that minimise the risk of distraction to other priorities of the Friends and the ‘bigger picture’ additional options to raising finance

a co-operative model also offers further economic benefits through being able to be more flexible in the future in responding to arising opportunities relating to trading (Trusts can’t trade, only manage an identified asset; and charities also largely ‘locked’ into their initial purposes and activities and also face restrictions around trading activities, which may explain why so few Friends groups have adopted this form6).

5 6 only 10% of Friends groups are registered as charities (Community Networking Project 2011 Final Report, national Green Space Community)

Support available It is also felt to be relevant within the context of this initial paper to briefly highlight the support available to co-operatives: as well as there being a vibrant community of other co-operatives throughout the local area (including the a local food co-op network that originated from within the local authority) and the wider region – many of whom are happy to share their experiences and explore how they might be able to support each other, there is the formal regional Co-operative network, Co-operatives NW; the national body for the wider co-operative movement (CooperativesUK), who offer a range of free resources on starting and sustaining co-operative enterprises via their website7; and the Co-operative Enterprise Hub – a funded national support programme offering support to start-up new co-operatives8.

Conclusion it is hoped that this initial paper has offered a greater insight and awareness into the benefits that adopting a co-operative model can offer the Friends, as well as some of the options as to how it might structure this; This paper may be further enhanced following discussions between Adrian Ashton and the Friends’ management committee scheduled for 16 Jan 2014.

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