Co-operative place-making in Rochdale

Rochdale Pionners Museum

Guest article by Cécile Berranger

With growing concern about global inequality, there has been an international resurgence of co-operative and community-focused projects and initiatives. The UK, however, offers a particularly interesting context.  Subject to prolonged austerity measures, the capacity of local government to intervene in local development has been drastically undermined. With growing inequality and a pressing need to fill the gaps in under-served communities, local authorities in many places are beginning to abandon their paternalistic top-down approach, and to experiment with new and alternative organisational forms of place management.

Increasingly Business Improvement Districts are taking over responsibility for town and city management, with over 300 now established. There are 471,000 social enterprises across the country, employing 1.44 million people[1], and a network of 26 designated social enterprise places[2], whereas Scotland is advocating Community Improvement Districts[3].  Most celebrated, perhaps, is The Preston Model[4], developed by Preston City Council and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), which has reformed local government procurement to enable key locally embedded “anchor” institutions to run local services. The model is designed to recapture investment and circulate local wealth within the local economy. Where gaps in provision remain, CLES suggests the formation of new worker co-operatives.

This brings into question the potential of an established model such as co-operatives to contribute to the inclusive and sustainable place development. Globally, the contribution of co-operatives to areas such as worker empowerment, community housing, agricultural, and sustainable development, is well documented in academic research; however, there is surprisingly little evidence concerning the potential of co-operative approaches to place development, or place-making.  My PhD research, therefore, aims to explore how some universally recognisable problems can be innovatively and creatively addressed in specific local contexts, focusing on a heritage project in Rochdale (UK), a post-industrial town located north of Manchester. 

Rochdale Town Hall

What is co-operative place making?

Conaty and Large (2013) draw on the principles set out in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities, to establish a vision of how a co-operative approach can be utilised as the basis of place making in the 21st century.  They argue market driven approaches to local development too often become subject to value extracting processes, with profits accruing to external investors, or situations in which places are in competition for both public and private investment. Instead, Conaty and Large suggest how localised collective ownership systems, such as shared ownership of land, can help to strengthen local economies, by forming both the basis for raising investment and as a mechanism for re-investing surplus into place development. Co-operatives are able to attract investments from outside (government, donors or co-operative apex organisation) or be investors themselves and re-invest not only in co-operative activities, but also in creating decent jobs and inclusive communities. Such systems, therefore, can empower local people, allowing them to shape the places they live through direct and indirect place-making activities. For example:

At the heart of co-operative place-making is the generation of co-operative capital as a mechanism through which to raise community capacity by strengthening local financial and human capital. There are essentially three approaches:

  1. “Bottom-up”: the establishment of community co-operatives by local people to meet local needs in deprived communities.
  2. “Top-down”: the establishment of co-operatives with the support of local development agencies, or the adoption co-operative principles by local government.
  3. “Mixed”: when co- place-making is top-down in a first stage, but there follows a transition to a bottom-up model when the capacity of local citizens is sufficient for them to take on full responsibility for co-operative place-making.

In an age of austerity, however, and especially in places subject to market failure, community capacity can be extremely low. Conaty and Large, therefore, advocate a public-social partnerships model.

Why Rochdale?

I have not stumbled on Rochdale[5] by accident. The town is the home of the very first modern co-operative movement, established by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 as a reaction to the extreme poverty experienced by ordinary workers during the Industrial Revolution.  The Pioneers aimed to establish a fairer economic system, curtailing the excesses of industrial capitalism through shared, democratic ownership and decision-making, values that remain central to the International Co-operative Alliance.

However, the co-operative movement is struggling to survive in Rochdale.  In recent decades, the town has experienced severe economic decline[6], gaining a poor reputation, with a disenfranchised population, a place which UK politicians might now call a “left-behind” community. One-third of the population are within the top 10% most deprived in England and Wales.  It is not surprising that in 2016 over 60% of local residents voted to leave the EU.  The town, however, retains a strong sense of place identity. Perhaps then, there is a need for Rochdale to reconnect with the values of the co-operative movement, as the basis of a more inclusive model of place development in an urban context.

The Rochdale Project: Heritage Action Zone

Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council is one of 24 co-operative councils in England.[7]  In response to the deep structural problems facing the town, the local authority aims to transform Rochdale into a modern co-operative economy. The anticipation is that reconstruction of co-operative capital will lead to community led place-making practices.

Drake Street, Rochdale is currently designated as a Heritage Action Zone (HAZ).[8] Indeed, in Drake Street, many buildings constructed during the last 19 Century belonged to the co-operative movement. The Rochdale Development Agency, together with the Borough, is trying to revitalize the street by implementing urban regeneration processes. A key component of these regeneration processes is the creation of a co-operative hub[9], which will support community co-operative initiatives.  Potentially, this represents an opportunity to generate a mixed co-operative place-making process. Moreover, Rochdale is involved in other regeneration projects such as the restoration of the Town Hall and the construction of the new mall to be built close to the Number One Riverside. Even if these projects are adjacent to rather than embedded in the co-operative organisation model, the main ambition is to create an environment of co-operation among smallholders’ shops and activities by readapting the co-operative values[10] and recreating co-operative capital. For instance, Number One Riverside is a co-working building where different development agencies can co-operate. Indeed, this building has been inspired by the values of the co-operative movement.

In this context, my research aims to understand how co-operatives can be encouraged and have an impact in reshaping places. This will be done by carrying out longitudinal semi-structured interviews with stakeholders aiming to understand both how the project has been implemented and the role of co-operative capital. Moreover, focus groups with groups of citizens (women, men, youth, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities) will be carried out in order to understand citizens’ standard of living and the main perception of co-operative place-making activities developed in Rochdale. Finally, a well-being indicator (a quantitative indicator inspired by that elaborated by Stiglitz, Fitoussi and Sen in 2012) will be developed aiming to understand Rochdelians’ standard of living with a specific focus on access to health, education, income, housing and environmental quality.  

Hopefully, the well-being indicator with the qualitative methods will be used by the Rochdale Development Agency and the borough to monitor the main effects of these co-operative place-making projects and their evolutions. Indeed, this is a long-term project and this PhD project will not be able to observe all the effects of these co-operative place-making activities. This is why one of the main ambition of this PhD is to provide a methodological toolkit to Rochdale and other cities that are implementing co-operative place-making activities.

Number One Riverside


As a conclusion, this PhD project will make a strong contribution to place-making and place management theories and practices. Indeed, co-operatives could potentially offer an alternative way of financing and implementing place-making practices, with a special focus on collective action and participatory decision-making processes.