Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Slaithwaite co-operatives go from strength to strength

Slaithwaite, is the only village in England with a canal running along its front street.  Now such  uniqueness has been added to by the opening of a café run by a workers co-operative that has already won a number of awards for its baking products. And as it’s also situated just a few hundred yards from a co-operative grocers owned by its customers then it’s clear that despite its small size  Slaithwaite, situated in the Colne Valley near Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, is big on ideas when it comes to maintaining essential services in rural locations.

Passionate about producing food in a sustainable manner the handmade bakery was the brainchild of Johanna and Dan McTiernan. Following the birth of their son four years ago they were both seeking to move away from  careers in the media and bring to an end the time, not to mention cost, it was taking to commute to work in either Leeds or Manchester.

Whilst neither had any previous experience of setting up a business “we knew we wanted one run along democratic rather than hierarchical lines” says Finish born Johanna.  That wasn’t so difficult at the start of the venture in February 2009. After all the two-baker worker directors were themselves! Now however there are six of them, all with a  £1 investment and earning £8.50 an hour.  It means “decisions can take a bit longer to make” says Johanna.

This doesn’t appear to have had any adverse effect as two months ago the bakery moved just along the canal path to larger premises. This has allowed for the opening of a café that has boosted sales of bread and cakes as well as increasing the space in which the co-operatives highly successful bakery courses are taught.

Expansion was made possible through the launch of the Bread Bond under which local people investing £2,000 for a minimum of three years get one loaf a week, the equivalent of a 6% return per annum. For those living further afield - and thus unable to turn their dough into dough - an investment of £1,000 secures a place on one of the School of Slow courses that include artisan bread basics, wild yeast baking as well as one on how to start your own community bakery.

“We think people should regain the skills and joy of baking bread at home which is something everyone used to do. Our bread takes 20 hours to make and this makes it healthy because people are then abandoning industrially produced bread that is packed with additives and preservatives” says Johanna who was delighted when the business picked up a national co-operative award last year and also made it through to the Final of BBC Radio 4’s food and farming awards.

Sharing in the joy was Graham Mitchell, a passionate advocate of co-operatives and one of the founders of the Southampton based graphic design co-op Total Coverage that’s now more than a quarter of century. He’s currently the chair of the board of shareholders at the nearby Green Valley Co-op, one of the main outlets for the handmade bakery’s products.

Green Valley was established in July 2009 after Graham and friends organised a successful local public meeting. At this £10,000 investment in a community share scheme was raised from people who were asked not to put in any more than they could afford to lose and were also informed that no dividends would be paid in the first three years. With the funds it was possible to purchase the fittings and furnishings at a greengrocers that had seen better times and was now closing down, the aim being to prevent other shops following suit and also encourage local food producers to sell their wares there.

Boosted by the community support it now enjoyed then once the shop re-opened it soon went from strength to strength. As a result turnover of £800 a week has leaped to over £3,000. Nine local people, mainly on a part-time basis, are employed. The business has benefited with free advice from a number of agencies - including the Plunkett Foundation that helps rural communities. All of which means that according to Graham “it’s now possible for co-operatives to be established everywhere, especially as there are also some funds available from different sources.” 

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