Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies (Environmentally Sustainable Investment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:36 am on 11th September 2020.

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Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 10:36 am, 11th September 2020

First, I thank Anna McMorrin for bringing this private Member’s Bill to the Chamber today. As was apparent from her speech, she has a lot of experience of working on environmental issues, and I appreciate the work she has put into the Bill so far. It is not perfect, and I look forward to it being improved as it progresses through Parliament. I wish simply to highlight the issues where I think I can support the Bill, to flag up some issues from my own constituency and examples of the good work that co-operatives undertake, and to give a summary of what I see as the key aspects of the Bill.

Co-operatives and community benefit societies are long-standing in our communities. We are told that co-ops are democratically owned and controlled by their members and that they exist to meet common needs and aspirations, in contrast to companies that are arguably more focused on the payment of dividends to shareholders. We are also told that co-ops are more about sharing power and wealth. Clearly, there will be a divergence of views on some of those statements—some will agree, some will not—but I am in no doubt about the worth of co-ops to our economy and wider society. The contribution of co-ops is clear and their importance cannot be understated. Importantly, I believe that co-ops should be part of how we build back better after covid-19.

There are lessons to be learned from how co-ops do business. Last year, co-ops contributed £38 billion in turnover and provided work for almost a quarter of a million people. While only 43% of companies survive their first five years, more than 72% of co-op start-ups continue to flourish. In 2019, there were more than 7,200 co-ops operating across the United Kingdom in a range of sectors of the economy. The ownership of co-operatives is a hugely important consideration in this debate. It is argued that sharing ownership in co-ops gives people and communities a stake in the operation of the business and encourages greater engagement, interest and concern in the long-term interests of the business. This applies as much to customer or employee owners of large retail businesses as it does to local co-ops, which together own valued local enterprises such as pubs, football clubs and shops. I am sure we all have examples from our own constituencies of successfully operating co-operatives.

In rural areas such as my own, in the Scottish borders, the agricultural sector is particularly prominent and important. More than £7.9 billion of co-operative turnover comes from farming in the UK annually. There are lots of examples of successful co-operatives in my constituency.  Growing up on a farm, I know that the cost of modern farm machinery can be significant. Organisations such as Progressive Agri near Coldstream help farmers to purchase machinery and equipment as part of a group. There are other agricultural co-ops, such as Scottish Borders Produce, which is a cross-border co-operative with members from across the Scottish Borders, East Lothian and Northumberland. It specialises in the environmentally responsible growing and processing of top-quality vining peas for the retail frozen market. This green shares Bill would give them and others like them a means of generating external finance in order to make substantial and environmentally friendly investments and expand their operations. There is evidence to suggest that sharing ownership in such co-ops also boosts productivity, by making employees and suppliers more likely to work harder to support their business. Studies have shown that the commitment ownership brings boosts productivity, because people are invested emotionally and financially in the business.

Co-operatives offer a dynamic solution, rooting long-term social value within financial value. Their involvement in a successful and sustainable future UK economy is vital, but why are there not more of these co-operative-type models? In 2020, they make up less than 1% of the total number of businesses. As we look towards the post-covid world and consider how to make businesses more robust, more resilient and fairer, the answer could be a more co-operative economy. In addition to the clear economic importance and resilience of co-operatives and community benefit societies, their focus on localism and wider social benefits aligns with our goals for sustainable development. Advocates of co-operatives emphasise that these types of business models are a more sustainable form of business due to an evasion of the desire for immediate profits and, instead, a focus on longer-term goals. That is clearly a point for debate and discussion, but there is no doubt that co-ops and alternative models of business have a role to play in our economy.

The Committee on Climate Change emphasised the importance of an environmentally sustainable economy in its 2019 report, “Net Zero: the UK’s contribution to stopping global warming”. The report highlighted the importance of the UK providing an attractive green investment environment, noting that Government success in providing clear and stable mechanisms that attract sufficient volumes of low capital will be key to the overall success in reaching a net zero greenhouse gas target. The Committee concluded that the UK is well placed to lead globally on the development of products to finance low-carbon investment. Again, co-operatives and community benefit societies provide one mechanism to achieve that.

However, despite the clear possibility of co-operatives and community benefit societies enhancing the level of environmentally sustainable investment in this country, there are limitations on their ability to raise external capital in a way that is consistent with their founding principles, and thus their growth. The Bill seeks to address that. It would arguably allow co-operatives and community benefit societies to gain powers to raise finance by issuing redeemable green shares to external investors. In turn, any capital raised would be required to be invested in environmentally sustainable projects. We have heard from other Members during the debate about how we define environmentally sustainable projects. Where is the line between a green project and something that might be just more of a commercial initiative? The Bill will need to clarify that as it progresses.

Without the Bill, co-ops rely on their members’ capital to fund their operations. Withdrawable shares are bought by members and shares are limited to a maximum of £100,000 for an individual stakeholder, with the aim of preventing co-operatives relying on only a small number of their members or a single member having excessive financial clout. The introduction of redeemable green shares facilitated by the Bill might provide a solution, allowing co-operatives and community benefit societies to raise new sources of finance.