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The Regional Democracy Think Tank for West Yorkshire

Co-operative Care Colne Valley

By Graham Mitchell

This is the story of how a West Yorkshire community has come together to create a new model for the provision of quality social care.

The deep problems in social care, sidestepped by successive governments for many years, are well known and I won’t rehearse them here. About three years ago, under the banner of the Kirklees Solidarity Economy Network ( a group of local people came together to consider practical actions that could be taken in Kirklees towards the development of a local economy that put people and planet first. The discussion was fascinating and wide ranging. We spent a good deal of time looking at options in the food sector, with discussion about food clubs, the creation of a social supermarket in Huddersfield’s Queensgate Market, and converting the market into a co-operative of stallholders. We talked about social housing and developing a Community Land Trust, and of course we talked about social care and the ongoing crisis in this crucial sector that was impacting, either directly or indirectly, everyone’s lives. All of this of course was happening within a context of an austerity programme that was causing deep and lasting damage right across Kirklees.

And so we decided that, for the time being at least, social care would be our focus. Further discussion ensued and the shape of the project very rapidly emerged: while we couldn’t – as a bottom up group - expect to fix the deep structural problems in social care, we could build and deploy a model for care provision that addressed at least some of the key issues.

We wanted to ensure that the people in receipt of care, and the professionals delivering that care, were the at centre of the operation. As is so often the case with jobs that have historically been seen as women’s work, care work does not currently attract the respect or reward that it deserves -– if we were going to change things, this had to be front and centre. And it should go without saying that the people in receipt of care also needed to have their hand firmly on the tiller and be in control of what was being done in their name.

We wanted the organisation to be owned and controlled by these people, and by the community that it served. And we wanted the whole thing to work sustainably, not only financially, but also in terms of its environmental impact, and in terms of engendering and deepening a real sense of local ownership and accountability. The steering group was also clear that the organisation should not be profit seeking, and whilst of course it needed to operate prudently, surplus would be reinvested to enhance service provision.

With these principles in place, a Community Benefit Society not only offered an excellent fit with the needs and a strong democratic platform, it also provided a proven mechanism – a community share issue – by which we would go on to raise the start-up capital that the organisation would need.

The initial response from Kirklees Council to our vision was hugely positive and encouraging, and gave a real spur to our plans. We were quick to secure early project funding from the Power To Change Trust, followed by development funding from Kirklees Council, and the detailed work of creating a business plan and the intricate framework of policies and procedures by which we would operate was underway.

Despite the unexpected intervention of the pandemic and all of the delays and complexities – as well as the opportunities – that brought, we kept on track.

We were getting approached by growing numbers of people from other parts of the country who wanted to do something similar in their community.

We had been clear all along that it was important to stay local, so growing the organisation beyond the local community, beyond a sensible human scale, would be counter-productive – weakening the sense of community accountability and diluting the power of community ownership.

Replicate and Federate

So our growth model was about essentially replication and federation, learning from the successes of the Northern Italian social care cooperatives that had implemented the “strawberry patch” approach to such good effect. If we could do something similar in the UK, who knows what could be achieved, not just in West Yorkshire, but right across the country, simply by proactively sharing our hard won know-how and creating a supportive on-ramp to enable other communities to build their own local social care co-operative, all networked together for mutual support and back office cost sharing. So our ‘Sharing Care’ project was born. Huge thanks and credit to the Power To Change Trust for backing this.

There’s a lot still do to. We’ve yet to clarify just how we’re going to get the best from our multi-stakeholder ownership and governance (although we’ve got some good ideas). We’ve yet to prove that we have a sustainable business, although we do now have a fast-growing number of clients and a developing staff team that is excited about the difference that we can make, and the prospects ahead.

And we do have a fast-growing community of interest around the work we and others like us are doing. For we aren’t alone in wanting to change the game around social care. We’re learning a huge amount from others that have forged similar paths as we progress on this exciting journey, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity of co-creating a better future for social care.

Graham Mitchell
Graham Mitchell is a founding member and the current chair of Colne Valley Equitable Care Society Limited, the community benefit society that runs Co-operative Care Colne Valley. Graham has over 30 year experience of working in the cooperative economy, and is a passionate advocate for the co-operative business model as a vehicle for social and economic transformation.

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