Our Co-operative roots are the gateway to future prosperity

Richard Farnell

Councillor Richard Farnell, Leader of Rochdale Council

Councillor Richard Farnell, Leader of Rochdale Borough Council and a Vice Chair of the Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network explains how Rochdale’s co-operative roots are the gateway to future prosperity.

Turning around 50 years of long term economic decline is never easy. Ever since Rochdale lost its textile manufacturing base to cheap foreign imports in the 1960s, it’s been a real struggle attracting new industries to our borough. It’s not just a problem for Rochdale though; every northern industrial town is in the same boat.

It didn’t help when the Thatcher government of the 80s virtually wiped out our manufacturing industries – coal, steel, car manufacturing and engineering all went abroad – as the government turned the country in the main into a financial and service economy. Good for some parts of the UK, but a disaster for our industrial heartlands.

It’s been a long and difficult haul back – but here in Rochdale we have made remarkable progress given the mountain we’ve had to climb.

And new ways of doing business – not least co-operatives – are helping us do it.

But, you would expect nothing else from the birthplace of the Co-operative movement and a local authority immensely proud of its co-op roots.

There are several examples of new ways of co-operative working here in Rochdale, with many more in the pipeline as these times of austerity continue to bite.

  • All former council housing is now owned by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing as a co-op run by its 13,000 tenants and staff.
  • The local rugby league club, the Rochdale Hornets was a founder of the Rugby Football League and is now a co-operatively owned club run by its fans – the first the country
  • The Magic Market in Heywood is a community asset run by a co-operative of its stall holders
  • The Pioneers Trust is an education co-operative set up by the borough’s high schools and colleges where schools work together to share best practice and innovation to drive up standards and attainment levels.
  • PossAbilities is a successful social enterprise – owned and run by former council staff – providing care services to disabled and young people
  • Falinge Park is about to be transferred to a social enterprise run by those who use it

Without such organisations working under the co-operative banner, adopting the principles first set out by the Rochdale Pioneers, the town would not be the place it is today – on the up.

In recent years Rochdale has seen:

  • new jobs created in advanced textiles and manufacturing
  • high-tech companies trading in everything from bio sciences to equipment for nuclear submarines
  • a greater percentage of people employed in manufacturing than any other borough in Greater Manchester.

Given our unique location on the motorway network we are also a major distribution centre employing thousands of people. And don’t let anyone kid you these are all low-skilled, poorly paid jobs. They are not. They employ highly-skilled drivers, logistics managers, electricians, engineers, accountants and finance and HR staff. We need a wide variety of jobs to match the various level of skills of the local population.

And we are outstripping our neighbours in our record on skills and training to upskill our workforce.

Our sixth form college is the best in the country in improving academic progress of its students. Hopwood Hall vocational college is the most successful in Greater Manchester.

Rochdale is leading other local councils in getting more of our youngsters into apprenticeships. In Rochdale, we even top up the government training allowance by £2,000 per apprentice to encourage local teenagers to take up higher level training.

The latest big challenge is creating the Northern Gateway. This is an opportunity for Greater Manchester – which is made up of 10 local authorities including Rochdale – to create the space needed to attract new jobs and industries in the region.

As industrial land dries up in the south of Greater Manchester, Rochdale, and our neighbours Bury and Oldham, can use our unique position – both geographically and with our transport connectivity – to be the economic powerhouse of the conurbation over the next 20 years.

The Northern Gateway will provide land to create 19,000 new jobs over the next two decades. If we are serious about halting our long term economic decline, and with it the poverty and deprivation, we cannot let this opportunity slip by.

But growth in jobs will not in the main come from large and multinational companies – when they invest new technology  it is inevitably to reduce employment numbers. It is small and medium size companies which will be providing the jobs of the future. This will open up opportunities to provide new kinds of working – not least co-operatives, social enterprises and community initiatives.

We need to start planning now to create the industrial space we need to grow and thrive – and new thinking to create new kind of businesses and enterprises to fill them.

The stakes have never been higher – we must seize the opportunity to create a more successful and prosperous borough for all our residents – and the workforce to come.

Greater Manchester’s Northern Gateway will mean more skilled, better paid and co-operative jobs; boosting the regional – and Rochdale’s – economy and providing good jobs our future generations need.

Something, I’m sure our co-operative Founding Fathers would be proud of.

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