The role of local co-operative development agencies in promoting worker co-operatives

Cornforth, Chris (1984). The role of local co-operative development agencies in promoting worker co-operatives. Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 55(3) pp. 253–280.



In recent years the number of worker co-operatives in the UK has grown rapidly. In the early 1970s there were approximately 20 worker co-operatives, mainly consisting of long established cooperatives formed at the tum of the century, but by 1980 this number had increased to about 300, again to nearly 500 by 1982 and to 900 by 1984, (CDA, 1980, 1982, 1984b). Initially this growth was stimulated by the promotional efforts of the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) which produced model rules for worker co-operatives, and by the passing of the Industrial Common Ownership Act in 1976 which provided £250,000 to promote co-operatives and establish a revolving loan fund. Further impetus was given when in 1978 the Government set up the national Cooperative Development Agency (CDA) to act as a national body for the co-operative movement. This was followed by a rapid growth in local Co-operative Development Agencies (CDAs) usually with the sole purpose of promoting and assisting worker co-operatives. The first local CDA was set up in Scotland in 1977, since when the number has increased to about 100 (CDA, 1984a) of which approximately half employ full time development officers.

Local Co-operative Development Agencies are of considerable interest to those concerned with the theory and practice of worker co-operation. It has been argued in the literature on worker co-operatives that a healthy worker co-operative sector is unlikely to develop without the establishment of secondary support organisations (Vanek 1975, Campbell et al. 1977, Horvat 1980). In the UK context local CDAs represent the major form of support and assistance available to the worker co-operative sector. However, to date there has been very little done to try to assess the theoretical or practical significance of these developments. This paper aims to contribute to that task.

The paper presents some preliminary findings from research being undertaken by the Co-operatives Research Unit at the Open University which is examining the role of local CDAs in creating and sustaining worker co-operatives. It draws primarily upon the results of a pilot study of five local CDAs, (reported more fully in Comforth and Stott, 1984). Information on each CDA was gathered from written reports produced by the agencies, and from an in depth structured interview carried out with an officer of each agency. Further information about the wider population of CDAs was gathered through discussion and talks with other CDA workers, from the Newsletter of the Network of local CDAs, and from other secondary sources.

The paper has three main aims:
1. To provide some basic descriptive information on the organisation and performance of CDAs that will be of use to both practitioners and academics.
2. To raise questions and issues that we feel require further consideration by policy workers and practitioners.
3. To relate the findings to existing literature on co-operative development and suggest future avenues for research.

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