Creating a national network of social care co-ops: Graham Mitchell of Co-operative Care Colne Valley

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Colne Valley Co-operative Care: building a toolkit to help develop a national network of social care co-ops

Today I’m talking with Graham Mitchell, of Co-operative Care Colne Valley. He’s part of a group starting a social care co-op in the Colne Valley, West Yorkshire, and they’re also building a toolkit / step-by-step guide for people to start a social care coop in their own community. I’m interested in how this toolkit can help grow the cooperative social care sector. Could there be a national network of social care co-ops?

Part 1 of this interview is here – https://www.lowimpact.org/why-we-need-social-care-co-ops-graham-mitchell-part-1/.

Where have you got to? What success have you had? Including funding?

We’re still at quite an early stage in the process. We started looking at this 3 years ago. We’ve done 2 years’ worth of development work, which has gathered pace. We’ve had a huge amount of support. We’ve had a few bumps in the road and I dare say there will be more, because what we’re doing is complicated. There’s a big regulatory environment around social care, that we have to understand and be compliant with. It’s there to protect service users, so we need to work with that. We’ve got a lot of knowledge and experience in the team, and we’ve got people with legal and financial expertise. So we’ve got a great team. We’ve been successful in raising funding, from Power to Change – who gave us start-up funding. We got funding from the local authority, and we’ve just done a community share offer, which will give us a pot of money to start delivering a service. So we’re in the final run-in stage, waiting to jump through the CQC hoops. We have to apply to be a registered provider, so we’re getting everything in place for that, as well as our internal systems – policies and procedures etc. It’s a big piece of work.

One of the reasons we wanted to do this replication toolkit / handbook was that we could see there’s a lot of work involved. I’ve helped set up a co-operative greengrocers – a simple retail business that was much easier than this. This is on another level.

Is that the biggest barrier you face – the complexity? Are there any others? And how can they be removed?

I think part of it is by learning how we go, and making sure we have this toolkit resource. We’ve been lucky in getting funding to help us develop that resource. So hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll have an early version of that available. And we’re talking to other care co-ops that we’re aware of, to ask for help in contributing to that. We want to develop that body of knowledge, so that it can be a useful resource for others wanting to do the same thing.

I wanted to ask you more about that. Is it a toolkit? A step-by-step guide?

I’m not quite sure what it’s going to look like. We’ve been talking about it in terms of a toolkit. The idea of a care co-op in a box – so that other people don’t have to make the same mistakes. They can get going more smoothly, with a clear roadmap. But we probably need to be operating for a year or 18 months to really understand what it’s all about, and to get a better insight into some of the issues we’re going to need to deal with.

So the toolkit is more of a long-term project?

Yes. I see it as a live thing – an ongoing resource that we’ll continue to contribute to, and we hope that others will too.

Are you looking for people who might like to set up a social care co-op in their town? And if so, can they contact you now, or further down the line?

They’re very welcome to contact us now. We’ve already been talking with some groups around the country, and some of them have been working away at it for a while. So we’re keen to develop those conversations and build those relationships. Part of what we want to see come out of this is a community of interest. We’ve had interest from funders about how we could develop the sector. When you get down to basics, for me, there’s a lot of common sense in co-operative, community-based, relatively small organisations caring for people, and to have a lot of these organisations dotted around all over the place, networked together, so that you’ve got economies of scale, but with the human scale and local accountability that small size can give you.

People in different communities can learn from each other.

Yes. We’ve got the resources now to do this at low cost. We now all know that we don’t have to travel long distances to have meetings and useful conversations. What we can do well with the co-operative model is unique in this space, and it feels like a really good fit – a natural way of doing it. So I think there’s a big opportunity there, and it doesn’t really matter what government does.

As regards your local co-op there, what can people do to help? Who are you looking for?

We’re looking for people with solid expertise – that might be business or co-ops or social care. We’ve got our first AGM coming up in October, so all the current directors – the founder directors – will be standing down. A lot of us will be standing again, but we want to bring more expertise and some fresh thinking to the board. Although we’re a small organisation – we’ll probably have a turnover of £2-3 million once we’re established, this idea of building a network of similar organisations across the country offers a lot of opportunity to do some interesting and exciting stuff over the next 5 years or so.

So people can contact you about your local project and about the network project?

Absolutely. We want to talk to as many people as possible.

And they can contact you via the website?

I think so. I’ll make sure they can. (NB: you can.)

What’s your ambition with the network? A social care co-op in every community?

I don’t see why that couldn’t be the case. We’ve got interest from a local group, not far from us. We’ve got interest from groups active in other parts of the country. What there isn’t at the moment, is an expert development service, so we want to create that. There has been quite a lot of work done over the years on co-operative care, but it’s never quite been able to gather sufficient pace to create the necessary body of expertise. So we’ve got funding to work on this toolkit concept, so we’ll build that out – which will take us into next year. Then we want to have a place where people can come to get support, advice, expertise – then if they can get their local authority to fund a piece of work, we can start to see things happening. But we need to do some work to build that out into this federation-cum-development service that can then provide backup and support for these new groups.

And are you looking for people currently working in social care who think this might be a better way of doing things?

Yeah – there’s quite a movement out there, within the social care sector already. Looking for better ways to do stuff, and innovating in a range of different ways. For me, because of my background in the co-op sector, that kind of governance model fits really well. It offers an opportunity to bring these innovations together to create something that’s robust, and can be a useful model for people.

And do you think Covid and the lockdown will give you an opportunity?

Well there’s always opportunity in a crisis, I guess. Certainly it’s raised a lot of awareness about social care and its problems. The impacts of Covid are not going to go away soon, so yes, there are opportunities that come as a result of that, including funding. And I think it’s also shown people that local, mutual support can be extremely effective – because that’s what really saved the day back in the spring and into the summer, when everyone got locked down. It was the mutual aid groups solving problems on the ground.

Do you see any fightback from any quarter? Any players you think might be opposed to it?

Good question. I don’t see this as a market. It doesn’t seem appropriate to talk of it as a market. But obviously there are private sector and third sector organisations that are active in the sector. If we’re going to start a business operation – albeit a co-operative, not-for-profit operation – then I suppose we’re going to be competing. So I’m sure there will be some fightback, but what we’re trying to do is co-operate rather than compete, and we want to see better outcomes for the communities involved and the people receiving care.

Where can people keep up to speed with what you’re up to?

We’re increasingly writing stuff on our website. We’re just about to open a membership scheme, and the toolkit is going to go online shortly, on its own website.

I’ll put your website in the description below, and I’ll add the new website when it’s ready. I guess I’ll need to talk with you again when the toolkit is live and getting take-up.

Yes, let’s revisit, maybe in 6 months time, and we’ll see how it’s developed.

Finally, if you had a magic wand, what would you do?

That’s a difficult question. I don’t think there’s a particular thing. There’s no silver bullet. I think we’ve been really lucky so far with this project. I guess if I had a magic wand, I’d wind the clock forward a couple of years, and not have to do all the hard stuff that’s coming up. So I can be seeing it ticking over really well.

I’m sure you’ll get there. I hope we can help you find some more interesting people.

Thanks Dave.

Thanks Graham.

Highlights

  1. One of the reasons we wanted to do this replication toolkit / handbook was that we could see there’s a lot of work involved. I’ve helped set up a co-operative greengrocers – a simple retail business that was much easier than this. This is on another level.
  2. We want to develop that body of knowledge, so that it can be a useful resource for others wanting to do the same thing. The idea of a care co-op in a box – so that other people don’t have to make the same mistakes.
  3. There’s a lot of common sense in co-operative, community-based, relatively small organisations caring for people, and to have a lot of these organisations dotted around all over the place, networked together, so that you’ve got economies of scale, but with the human scale and local accountability that small size can give you.