The UK lacks the support and structures necessary to turn public services into mutuals, according to a new report from Co-operatives UK, the trade body for cooperatives.
Time to Get Serious: International Lessons for Developing Public Service Mutuals, written by the consultant Jonathan Bland, the former chief executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, looks at examples from Spain, Italy and Sweden, all of which have strong cooperative sectors providing public services.
It highlights the key ingredients for the success of mutuals found in those countries which it says are underdeveloped in the UK, including specialist business support, clear cooperative legal models, effective taxation regimes and appropriate procurement regimes.
According to the report, cooperatives in Spain and Italy can obtain discounted loans and grants and use specialist funders. It says there should be a review of available finance in the UK.
It also calls for cooperative models that allow ownership by service users and employees, and says cooperatives need to be organised into consortia to provide them with the scale to bid for large contracts.
"[UK policy on mutuals] does not emerge particularly well from this comparison and this must form something of a reality check," the report says. "However, it is early days for the new programme and, with political will, there is scope to accelerate action and to tackle obstacles that may arise."
Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, said that the UK had laudable ambitions to create a strong cooperative sector, but the report showed "many of the rungs on the ladder are missing".
He said its most important recommendation was the provision of good business support for people interested in starting mutuals. "People interested in starting mutuals have to assess what their options are," he said. "You have to work with the willing and help them see what it’s practical to achieve."