Permaculture magazine: Could you tell our readers more about the permaculture projects The Drive Housing Co-op are involved with and have sought support from? Was it something all of you had written into the initial plans or was one member perhaps more responsible for including permaculture?
The Drive Housing Co-op: Several founding members had an interest in permaculture and were also involved in food growing and conservation projects locally, though they have moved on now. A few of us have visited Hawkwood Nurseries and hope to take some courses there. Work in the garden is still in its early stages, but we are all keen to see it grow along permaculture principles and produce more of our own food. The puzzle is in the planning and learning to work with what we've got. The past year has been spent freeing the soil from under concrete and generally clearing space, as well as planting apple trees in the front garden. Hopefully this year will be the time for planning something beautiful, sustainable and productive and starting to make it happen!
Permaculture magazine: What kind of support is out there for a new co-operative? Be it government, other groups, local suppliers (food, building, financial, advice)?
The Drive Housing Co-op: There is some support available from Co-operatives UK. Other Co-ops have been helpful too, when asked. Radical Routes is a network for Co-ops of all kinds and a useful resource when looking for information or support. Starting up a co-op will pay-off long term, but you have to be realistic – it's a big financial commitment and won't necessarily be a cheap option.
Max from Seeds For Change, who are people providing support and training to activists, campaigners, community groups and co-operatives, adds: "In these uncertain times co-ops are a way for us to take back control.They're a way for us to work, live and share together in an equitable way. Right now there's an upsurge of interest in co-ops as people decide to reclaim their lives from the corporations, the banks and the state.The great thing about it all is that co-ops help each other, so there's never been an easier time to get involved and sort out your workplace, your housing, your food supply and anything else that you want to do with other people."
Following on from this, Max says you will find support from the Transition Town movement and of course from the permaculture community itself, do check out the Permaculture Association's website for contacts and support.
Permaculture magazine: Any big lessons that you have learnt so far ... any really big 'don'ts' that you would want other new and potential co-operatives to know about?
The Drive Housing Co-op: One big lesson is to make sure you have a solid social group first! Knowing each other well, for at least a year, would be ideal. The property or work side, making a good business plan and getting a loan are difficult, but manageable by comparison. Co-operation and its legal structures are a means (though a desirable one), not an end; what matters are the people.
As many of you know from reading Permaculture magazine, the people care side of many undertakings can be one of the most overlooked aspects of the many varied projects we find ourselves involved with. You will find support for this side of things again from the Permaculture Association, but do also read Looby Macnamara's People & Permaculture book and eBook. Looby's book really does bring something new to permaculture and to the people side of projects, teaching and understanding.
Permaculture magazine: One year down the line with the Drive Housing Co-op, how are you all feeling about the levels of work and commitment such an undertaking requires? Any really pleasant surprises?
The Drive Housing Co-op: It is a big commitment, and dinner-table conversation frequently turns to "shop talk" about the house and other issues. But that's because we all care about this project and the people we live with, the challenge is quite exciting. There have been two surprises: the generosity and good will people all brought to the project, and just how little the work feels like work when it's done in this spirit, for people one shares the group with.
Permaculture magazine: I used to live in a co-opeartive myself (it's Tony Rollinson from the magazine office here). I found that being a part of a community gave me the time to be more involved with the wider community and make bigger contributions to my locality. Are any of you finding that as well as growing as a co-operative that you are actually responding to wider society in different ways? And, how are people from your locality responding to you?
The Drive Housing Co-Op: The Drive is certainly trying to play a positive part in the local community in Walthmstow. We have hosted an art installation as part of the E17 Art Trail, been out on anti-fascist marches to celebrate the diversity in our community, and some of our members work at schools nearby and volunteer for a local recycling initiative. We all work full-time, so would like to have the time to do more! The responses we've had to the co-op locally have varied from quite positive to polite bemusement. Being part of a co-op does change how you respond to the wider community - we are all very much ourselves, but being part of this group certainly becomes part of our identity.
Permaculture magazine: Has the current economic climate made it easier or a harder to set-up a housing or workers co-op?
The Drive Housing Co-Op: It's difficult to say. Very few mortgage lenders will lend to housing co-operatives, yet it wasn't housing co-operatives that were exposed to the crash.
As well as contacting Seeds For Change it can be worth looking around at some of the increasing number of alternative financial groups starting to appear. The forthcoming issue of Permaculture magazine, Issue 74 published in late October, looks at some of the other alternatives out there.
Permaculture magazine: Finally, could you perhaps recommed a book or initiative which you have collectively found useful in setting up the co-op?
The Drive Housing Co-Op: Again, Radical Routes and their publications have been a really valuable resource.
Permaculture magazine: Thank you very much. The first edition of the seminal text How To Set Up A Workers' Co-op was first published in 1994. A new edition has been written by Footprint Workers' Co-operative Ltd and Seeds For Change Lancaster Co-operative and just been made availalbe.
The guide is aimed at grassroots co-ops wishing to work in a non-hierarchical environment, and has information on working with consensus decision making as well as voting.
This edition has been published to coincide with the United Nations' International Year of Co-operatives.
How To Set Up A Workers' Co-op is available to download fo free from Green Shopping. It is also available to order for £6 from Radical Routes, you can write to Radical Routes, 16 Sholebroke Avenue, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS7 3HB or call them via 0845 330 4510.