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Could co-ops can be the key to Covid recovery?

Professor says there is a need for 'co-creation'

01 July, 2021 — By Richard Osley

Georgia Gould meets Professor Mariana Mazzucato in Kentish Town

CO-OPERATIVES could play a key role in the recovery from the coronavirus crisis, council chiefs have been told.

The Town Hall has set out four “missions” for post-pandemic life in Camden, including making sure everybody has access to healthy food.

And on Thursday, council leader Georgia Gould and Professor Mariana Mazzucato – the high-profile economist from University College London – got an up-close view of how working together could help stop people going hungry.

The pair are co-chairing Camden’s “Renewal Commission”, which is searching for ways to heal inequalities exposed by the Covid emergency and hopes to build a coalition of organisations to work on solutions.

In a tour of a pop-up community centre at 19-37 Highgate Road, Kentish Town – the building is being put to good use before it is knocked down by developers as part of the Greenwood Centre deal – food group Cooperation Town showed how groups were working to bulk buy together from supermarkets and provi­ders.

It said it was the complete opposite of a foodbank, as people were working on a sustainable way forward.

The pair also visited the Refugee Community Kitchen, which is helping to feed people from all backgrounds who are hungry on the streets.

Professor Mazzucato is shown the Refugee Community Kitchen by volunteer Janie Mac

Once seen as radical, the ideas of co-ops are now gaining more traction in political debates.

Asked whether she thought their use would spread further, Prof Mazzucato said: “The whole co-op movement and agenda is really important in terms of giving substance and concreteness to the idea of co-creation.”

She said that “co-creation” went further than just putting trade union reps on the boards of companies to ensure employees were getting a fair deal.

“It’s not just about making sure that things are done right and workers don’t get screwed,” she said.

“It’s about co-creating the agenda in the first place, asking together: Where do you want to go? What’s the long-run strategy for the organisation? That is really important.”

Prof Mazzucato added: “One of the things we always start out with is that the economy is not this deterministic thing or economic force – it’s an outcome of the decisions we make. The screwed-upness of the system is not inevitable, it’s because we’ve decided to govern businesses in ways which are very short-termist – concentrating on the maximisation of shareholder value.

“Meanwhile, public organisations or semi-state organisations have often been kind of ‘too little too late’ because we frame them as just fixing the gap. We can’t just be fixing problems, we need to be co-creating, co-shaping the vision. If a government is giving a subsidy or making a policy, it needs to ask what is the community getting back.”

Cllr Gould said: “Essentially we want to do away with foodbanks, we shouldn’t have them in our community. It’s happened because of underlying issues, and to solve this mission we have to deal with the failures of the welfare state and the benefits system, [and] poor progression of pay.”

She added: “The work we are trying to do now is to bring together everybody who is involved with food, and a lot of it involves moving to food co-ops – to give people dignity and choice. The first thing is to make sure nobody goes hungry, but then it is about supporting people.”

The New Journal’s Dan Carrier raised the idea of more food co-ops in Camden during a deputation to Camden’s full council meeting last year, after witnessing the alarming scale of food poverty in the borough. He organised the newspaper’s Food Aid Van campaign which delivered ingredients and meals to those in need during the lockdowns.

Other missions for Camden’s Renewal Commission include making young people feel safe and meeting climate change goals.

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