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Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash

Over recent weeks, the Co-operative Party has been hosting regional conferences right across the country, and it was my pleasure to speak at their Yorkshire and Humber event.

As the proud Labour and Co-operative Mayor of West Yorkshire, it was an unmissable opportunity to see members, friends and colleagues from across the region, all coming together under one common goal – to address the challenges our communities face through fresh, co-operative solutions.

Because that’s exactly what we’re doing in West Yorkshire, where our co-operative values and principles run through the heart of our approach in several key areas.

Take local bus services. As a Mayor and a passenger, I know that these genuine assets of community value – which are owned and run entirely by private and foreign owned companies – are put at risk when the voices of the local people who depend on them are marginalised.

So my Big Bus Chat spoke to thousands of passengers across West Yorkshire. In response, we’re investing tens of thousands to reconnect isolated communities, slashing fares across the region with a £2 cap on singles and £4.50 cap on day-tickets, and exploring reform of our bus network to deliver a London-style service everywhere that is affordable, reliable and sustainable.

Taken together, we’re putting passengers’ interests back in the driver’s seat, helping ensure that local communities have a true stake and say in how their essential transport services are run.

And the lessons we can learn from co-operative principles apply to the wider West Yorkshire economy, too.

Across our region, we have 288 fantastic co-ops, across a range of sectors including manufacturing, retail, leisure, social care, digital, and culture.

These include some of the best and biggest in the country – Suma Foods, Leeds Bread Co-op and Arla Foods, to name just a few. These are prime examples of what we want, and need, to see in the future.

Because our co-ops employ over 5,000 workers, often on above industry average wages, and contribute a combined annual turnover of more than two and a half billion pounds for our regional economy.

Through their co-operative models, this money gets reinvested back into the workforce, back into the businesses themselves, and back into the communities they help support.

We know the beneficial impacts of having a thriving co-operative movement, and that’s why I’m delighted to see the Labour Party’s commitment under Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves to double the size of the co-operative sector.

The Labour Party knows that to grow the sector, change has to come from the top. The lesson from other European countries like Italy, is that constitutional or legal recognition for co-ops provides the first building block on the path to a more populous and dynamic cooperative environment.

But it isn’t just top-down. The next Labour government will need their co-operative Mayors to deliver on their pledge, as we’re proving here in West Yorkshire, where we’ve put co-ops at the heart of our Economy Recovery Plan.

My mission for a fair, bold and inclusive economic recovery means creating a thriving, pluralistic and resilient business sector in West Yorkshire. That means widening the eligibility of all our business support programmes to include co-ops, which are too often excluded from accessing business funding and advice.

This was especially true under the big EU funds, so we’ve tailored the UK’s alternative – the Shared Prosperity Fund – to finance alternative business model pilots across the region, as part of our open call for projects backed by £500,000 of investment funding.

But we know that too many obstacles remain. Not just the legal and financial challenges that come from having an alternative business model, but also the lack of know-how among more traditional businesses about how to become a co-op, and the benefits of doing so.

Even when businesses do want to make the leap, there’s a lack of support to do so. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, many family-owned SMEs want to explore the option of becoming a co-operative when the owner retires, which would allow the workers to keep their jobs and receive a stake in the businesses. Yet, this can cost upwards of £80,000.

If we’re to truly succeed and double the size of the sector, we need a coordinated approach between the centre and the nations and regions to eliminate the barriers to co-operative development at every level, ensuring a level playing field for co-ops and giving the sector the support it needs to flourish.

As a Labour and Co-operative Mayor, I’m determined to work with local members, businesses and the wider Co-operative movement to turn West Yorkshire into the thriving heartland of a new, growing, British co-operative economy. But to get there, we need to elect Labour and Co-op Councillors, MPs, Mayors and Ministers, all working together on the side of local communities.