When small means strong: Community power at Cooperation Town

‘This is something that needs to be practised on a hyperlocal level … This is building power with our neighbours, the people who share our circumstances’

A Cooperation Town meeting in Hilgrove, Camden (Photo: Francis Wilmer)

Launched in Camden, north London, in 2019, Cooperation Town is a network of small community co-ops which work on a hyper local level, organising neighbourhoods into food-buying clubs.

The scheme means members can make savings of 30-40% on their food bills through shared bulk purchasing, but it also leveraging its small-scale model to empower working class neighbourhoods through non-hierarchical, autonomous, collective action. 

There are currently 14 Cooperation Town co-ops in operation, with another 10 ready for launch and many more in the pipeline. The team has also produced its Starter Pack, a guide for people looking to set up a co-op, and has so far distributed around 1,000 copies. Organisers are working on a drive to see one running in every neighbourhood in Camden, which will also be the site of a new logistics hub. Cooperation Town hopes this warehouse can help them achieve greater economies of scale without individual co-ops having to get too big.

“A 20 household co-op can buy a big bag of rice and share it, which brings savings for each member – but at the warehouse, we can buy five tons of rice,” says co-founder Shiri Shalmy. “It’s almost like a co-op of co-ops, but there’s no membership relationship to us – the individual co-ops are not members of our co-op. They’re autonomous.

“The reason that we’re able to do that is because we were able to secure funding from the Lottery and from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and  from local authorities in different areas which support local networks. That means we’re not reliant on our members to sustain the network or ourselves as an organisation – that would not be okay.”

Related: Cooperation Town puts out the call for Camden food networks

New co-ops on the Cooperation Town model are formed in two different ways – people hear of it through word of mouth and approach the group, looking to set up. “Or we might be working with another organisation like a local food network, a community group or a local authority and reach out to people already in those networks – could be a tenants and residents’ association (TRA), a faith group, the users of a community centre. We present the idea and support them in organising their own co-op.”

The small scale of the co-op works because it keeps the model to “people who already have some link between them,” says Ms Shalmy. “It could be just that they live on the same street or estate. But they’re small for different reasons; one is that we don’t want to make people’s lives more difficult, it shouldn’t be about having to travel somewhere far to be part of a food co-op. 

“And we want everyone to have a role in the co-op; keeping it to 20 members, means that everyone gets to do something – at least on rotation, it could be picking stuff up, it could be unpacking, it could mean being the treasurer.”

Limiting the size of a co-op also helps keep decision making and communication “democratic, open and inclusive,” she says. “We don’t tell people what to do – some co-ops are bigger than 20 households, some are smaller, but what we do suggest, is that, once they get to a number that is significantly larger than 20, let’s say 25 to 30, they split. So we end up with more co-ops, and more people who have developed the confidence to organise as a co-op, who are feeling that they have the skill and experience to share with new neighbours. They don’t need us any more, because they are already community organisers.”

This is hopefully a way of building local power in communities, she adds. “It’s people on the same estate, the same street, organising around something that is very low risk, that everyone needs. It’s multi generational, it’s multicultural, it’s people from different backgrounds who had been connected only by a postcode. They’re now sourcing quality food for less money, sharing recipes but also, crucially, learning to solve problems together. 

“It’s a kind of power that is transferable to other issues – we’re already seeing our members incorporate co-ops organising around other things, like childcare, gardening or housing, because they have learned to build power around something very easy. To me, this is something that needs to be practised on a hyperlocal level. These are local issues that affect people immediately. They’re not big campaigns. They’re not national policy changes. This is building power with our neighbours, the people who share our circumstances.

“We are seeing people getting involved in other things because they have met their neighbours and realised there are other common issues beyond affordable food. The best example is members of Cooperation Walthamstow in north London, one of the members was being evicted from her house with three children. She’s not a political organiser, not somebody who knew how to resist this, but her co-op rallied around her and defended her. There was an eviction resistance and the bailiffs did not enter this house. This member and her children got to stay in their house that day because her co-op organised the neighbourhood to defend her.” 

The small, hyperlocal model also means things don’t get too bureaucratic, says Ms Shalmy, and there is little scope for management capture or one individual taking too much power. Meanwhile the co-op structure elevates members who would otherwise be marginalised. 

“When we first started organising, some people said, ‘where’s the manager?’ Then we talked about it and realised that we don’t need one. These are the things co-op members are learning together, talking about ownership and collective decision making; allowing room for mistakes and learning from those. Members ask themselves, ‘why is this neighbour not coming to every meeting?’ You learn from those mistakes.”

She adds: “Our own organisation, which is a worker co-op, is quite small. We have four core members and at the moment, we’re employing three other people on a project base. We are looking to grow, but we’re trying to grow slowly. We get calls from local authorities, probably once a week, asking to roll out the Cooperation Town model, but we’re not going to do it right now, because we want to grow slowly. We want to make sure we’re doing it well.

“Councils come to us because we provide a solution that doesn’t cost a lot of money; it’s basically the cost of a part time organiser, and it is sustainable, it’s long term. You can build it and then you can let it replicate and grow. We’re in this weird place where local authorities love us, without us hiding our politics. We’re really open about our politics, we’re talking about the real problem being poverty wages on the one hand and parasite landlords, on the other. We’re working with Co-operate Islington, which is the first co-op development agency set up  since 1974, and we’re pushing to set another one up in Camden.

Related: Collaborating for cooperation in Islington

“And if someone else has come up with something that can work well within the model, we’ll be happy to work with them. If you’re a childcare co-op, or a food-growing co-op, we would work with you where we already have food co-ops organising, before we work with another local authority.” 

With food and energy prices rising, the pressures that gave rise to Cooperation Town are growing – but, says Ms Shalmy, “the poverty was there already. We hear people talking about energy costs and food costs and that could mean we see more people who haven’t so far felt squeezed – we might see middle class people looking for a collective solution.”

But Cooperation Town does not want to dilute its purpose. “If it means there are more co-ops, that’s a good thing, as long as the structure is robust enough to make sure that there isn’t a middle-class takeover. We’re very clear about our politics, that this is a working class project, we’re organising for power in our class.” 

With thanks to Miles Hadfield, www.thenews.coop

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