A Co-operative Recovery

Building trust through community-based co-operation

Jo Platt

General Manager, Leigh Spinners Mill

Community Power

Jo Platt is the former Labour & Co-operative MP for Leigh, a town in Greater Manchester and one of the ‘red wall’ seats that Labour lost in 2019 for the first time in almost a hundred years. Jo is one of the Commissioners on the Greater Manchester Co-operative Commission and heads up the community-led regeneration of Spinners Mill.

I often refer to my political career as being a rollercoaster of events. From finding my feet in the community back in the late noughties, to becoming a local councillor in 2012, then onto proudly representing my hometown of Leigh in Parliament from 2017 to 2019; before going full circle back into the community. The reality is that my political career has mirrored the rollercoaster of political events that have consumed the UK over the past 10 years.

When I was first elected as a local Councillor in 2012, we were faced with the worst cuts to local government budgets. Local political leaders knew we had to do things differently in order to ensure the most vulnerable in our communities were not impacted by the worst of the cuts. That’s where the concept of the Wigan Deal was born. The aim of the initiative was to enable the voluntary sector, guiding them to become social enterprises. It was hoped that these organisation’s become sustainable, whilst delivering services to the community that our public services could no longer afford to do. But it wasn’t enough!

The 2019 General Election shone a light on Leigh. It is apparent that de-industrialisation has left a gaping wound where a lack of investment has failed to ignite the inclusive growth we desperately need. Coupled with cuts to public services and the future fallout from the pandemic, never before has there been a time where we need to do things differently.

For too long, towns like Leigh have been neglected! Power, resources and funding are tightly controlled by Whitehall and communities across the country have little say in, influence over, or even any knowledge of the decisions affecting their daily lives. Some say that those areas have been “left behind” and are too slow to respond to a rapidly changing country.  I say they have been held back – held back by a system that gives them no voice and no choice.

The answer from this Government to my own area of Greater Manchester is to point to our city Mayor. On the face of it, it is exactly what was needed, where power, resources and funding are handed back down to local level. Unfortunately, however, the reality is far from the promise. Responsibility was gladly handed down, but the powers did not follow.

Nothing illustrates this more than the recent pandemic. The Government have consistently failed to entrust our regions with responsibility. The track and trace debacle, snubbed local expertise in favour of private tracing, opting to centralise and outsourcing crucial provision to fight the pandemic to two private call centre operators. It was a dangerous dismissal of the expertise and knowledge that we already have at local level at a time when we needed it most.

Gone are the days when Westminster can dictate its “we know best” attitude. The one-size-fits-all policy approach no longer works. The constant lockdown of our smaller businesses back in 2020, with no financial incentive, was testament to that.

However, the pandemic did show us a different way. People got together, they checked on their neighbours, they created food kitchens and community supermarkets, and they ensured that the most vulnerable did not go without. They did this, not because a political party told them to, but because in times of difficulty, people co-operate and work together collectively to meet their shared needs.

Community-based co-operation doesn’t wait for permission or funding. It just gets on with it. People will work together for the benefit of their community.

Throughout my political career the community has shown me how they can fight back and how we can improve our local economies in the face of diversity. Be it in Local Government, or in Parliament.

This has always been at the heart of my politics.

As a Co-operative Party member for over ten years, the Co-operative movement is just as important to me as my Labour Party badge. Standing for a sustainable society, a culture of citizenship with responsible business and, driving forward the change we so desperately want to see.

2020 was a dark time for many, but it reaffirmed my commitment to work for the town I hold so dear. I now work for a charity based in the heart of Leigh, where that fight back is alive and kicking.

We have recently set up a cooperative to oversee development of our grade-II*- listed Leigh Spinners Mill. We aim to renovate the heritage, in order to create space and opportunity for businesses wanting to get a foot on the ladder. The space we offer is affordable, with business rates low or non-existent.

There is already a culture of co-operative principles, with businesses, charities, and social enterprises all delivering a service that is key to our area. The very fact that we have coined the phrase “Millage” (Mill – Village) is testament to that.

The best part of this project is the shared values that the mill instils. It is a busy and vibrant site with an eclectic mix of activities taking place on a daily basis. We have over 30 tenants ranging from sports, a café, artists, a community cinema and other small commercial ventures.

The ethos of the mill is contagious. For example, there was a private members gym occupied by a group of friends who were serving police, fire and other public service officers. Their workplace gyms had long gone with the cuts. What became apparent was the need for them to extend their gym, not just to a group of friends, but to their wider colleagues in order to tackle the growing mental health issues that consume those in demanding roles.

Another example is a marketing business that operates at the mill. The pandemic was a worrying time for them and other small businesses, but given the demand from other mill tenants, they have been busy developing websites and other marketing literature in order to ensure that their neighbours remain relevant as lockdown took its toll. Community wealth building at its best!

This is nothing new. Community wealth building will be happening in towns, villages and cities across the country, unrecognised and not supported. It is this that our movement needs to embrace, to ensure that a bottom-up approach is enabled and sustained to grow. In effect, as we do in the Mill – give the space and opportunity to business and enterprise and watch it grow!

Fortunately, we also have a great local authority, Wigan Council, which is also expanding their ambition, putting community wealth building at the heart of how it operates, including their supply chains, their workforce and their assets with the shared goal of creating an inclusive economy.

With many local businesses either leaving Leigh to set up and network in our thriving cities, the opportunity to work local and network collaboratively to ensure our local economy thrives, whilst tackling inequality, has never been stronger.

In the midst of the most turbulent political times in living memory, it is now that the communities we serve need the leadership, the stability and the investment to reunite the country.

I believe that the Labour and Co-operative parties can develop that plan – a plan to give back power back to communities, to strengthen those powers with adequate resourcing and most importantly, to be unafraid to entrust our communities, our businesses, local authorities, Mayors and devolved assemblies with crucial decisions.

The people of our towns, villages and cities have pride and ownership of their communities. They know what they want and what they need to do. We must work together to embrace that.

Return to the main site

Promoted by Joe Fortune on behalf of the Co-operative Party, both at Unit 13, 83 Crampton Street, London, SE17 3BQ, United Kingdom. Co-operative Party Limited is a registered Society under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014. Registered no. 30027R