Grassroots Control and Social Change
by Patrick Nicholson
Radical Routes is a UK network of co-operatives explicitly committed to changing our world for the better. It is primarily an activists’ network; a mutual aid framework through which people can create and sustain practical alternatives in terms of housing, work, culture and education, and through which the injustice of present day society can be effectively challenged.
Co-operatives date back to the nineteenth century and the efforts of working people to take control of their lives in the face of the growth of capitalism, industrialisation and urbanisation. Co-ops provide an alternative model for creating ventures driven not by the need to generate profit, but the needs and aspirations of their members and of wider society.
Radical Routes began in the 1980s as an informal network of people, mostly unemployed, who came together with the common aim of developing alternative educational and housing projects using the co-operative legal structure. The network took the name Radical Routes in 1988, and in 1991 it became a legally-registered secondary co-operative. A secondary is a “co-op of co-ops”, providing support and services to its member co-ops. Radical Routes is a decentralised network with no central headquarters or paid staff, bar a single finance worker. It simply consists of its member co-ops and the voluntary work that the people in those co-ops commit to the network. Decision-making is achieved through a consensus-based democratic process at quarterly gatherings which rotate around the country.
Radical Routes lends money to its member co-ops, most commonly in the form of “top-up” loans given to housing co-ops to enable them to buy houses. Loans are secured against property, so that if the co-op fails Radical Routes is able to reclaim its money and the stability of the whole network is not compromised. In fact, Radical Routes has a remarkably good lending record. One or two co-ops have failed, but their debts were paid off leaving Radical Routes with a 100% lending record, unheard of in conventional banking circles! The low failure rate reflects the comprehensive mutual support within the network and the scrutiny given to loan applications before approval.
Currently, there are about 40 co-ops in Radical Routes. These include both urban and rural housing co-operatives. Urban housing co-ops include long established projects in cities such as Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham and Brighton, and in many cases these provide additional community facilities such as meeting rooms or offices for campaigning groups. Several rural housing co-ops are exploring new approaches to sustainable rural living incorporating low impact dwelling, renewable energy, and organic farming. Radical Routes worker co-ops include are involved in accountancy and training work, printing, and support services for those starting new co-operative projects. Social centres are the newest type of Radical Routes co-op, and offer a range of community facilities, such as bars, cafes, computer facilities, libraries and performance spaces.
Setting up a co-op is relatively easy, especially if you are aiming at starting a conventional housing co-op. The co-op is a legal entity with the same clout as a limited company, and is able to borrow money, buy houses etc., regardless of the financial circumstances of the individual members. A co-op is different from a normal company in that it is owned and run by its members. In a fully-mutual housing co-op all the tenants are members, and all members are tenants or prospective tenants. A housing co-op works by borrowing money to buy houses, and using the rent from members to repay the loans, improve the houses and facilities. Members can continue to claim housing benefit since they do not profit from the business of the co-op. The only limit to the size or number of houses you can buy is the number of rent-paying members and the rent level you can afford. If you’re interested in setting up a co-op, Radical Routes has a number of useful publications, and worker co-ops like Catalyst (contact details below) can offer hands-on advice and support.
Let’s be clear – Radical Route is not a network for every UK co-op. Radical Routes is a network for co-ops that are actively and consciously radical: that is, co-ops formed and run by people intent on changing society for the better in terms of social justice, environmental responsibility and grassroots democracy, and actively opposed to existing political structures, capitalism and corporate domination. Many co-ops are doing perfectly worthy work but do not have that extra commitment to social change that is required to join Radical Routes, nor the time and energy to contribute to the collective life of the network itself.
Radical Routes needs to access money to achieve its aims. In the early days, supporters simply lent money directly to Radical Routes, which was then lent to co-ops. In the late 1990s, the legal basis for doing this became uncertain, and so, in 1998, Rootstock was formed. This is an Industrial and Provident Society (like Radical Routes) that supporters can invest in by buying withdrawable shares. By doing so they become members and have a say in the running of Rootstock – Rootstock is in effect an investors’ co-operative. This money is passed on to Radical Routes, again in the form of shares, and becomes available to be lent to help new co-operative projects and expand the activities of existing co-ops. Investors in Rootstock currently can get interest of up to 3%, though investing in Rootstock should not be seen as a means for financial gain, but rather as a practical statement of support for Radical Routes. Whilst almost all other ethical investment schemes just aim to soften, or green, the rough edges of capitalism, with Rootstock your money is helping to build practical alternatives – the bases from which to challenge capitalism and create a better world here and now.
– Patrick Nicholson is a founding member of Walden Pond Housing Co-op based in St Leonards on Sea, and is Treasurer of Radical Routes.
Originally published on www.bluegreenearth.com
Radical Routes (general enquiries)
16 Sholebroke Avenue, Leeds LS7 3HB
Tel. 0113 262 9365
Rootstock (ethical investment society supporting Radical Routes)
BM Rootstock, London WC1N 3XX
Tel. 0870 458 1132
Catalyst Collective (advice on setting up co-ops)
245 Gladstone Street, Nottingham NG7 6HX
Tel. 0845 223 5254