The Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS), based in South East London, is a remarkable example of this alternative option: a member-led Community Land Trust (CLT) that was set up for the benefit of the local community. Last summer after more than four years of campaign work, RUSS went through a demanding procurement process to put forward a community-led proposal to develop a council-owned vacant plot in Church Grove, Ladywell. In October 2015, London Borough of Lewisham announced that RUSS was the preferred bidder to develop the site.
With access to land, RUSS is now seeking to secure development funds and planning permission to deliver its sustainable and affordable community self-build vision. The self-build aspect of the project will not only reduce costs and increase affordability, but also provide training opportunities to self-builders and volunteers, while aiming to encourage teamwork and cohesion during the building process. RUSS and other CLTs are aiming to make housing affordable, but also greener living affordable, a virtuous cycle that self-reproduces: better insulated homes that save and produce energy lower members’ living costs and their environmental footprint.
RUSS was originally formed back in 2009 with only a handful of members; today, it has more than 250 members. The organisation’s co-operative advantage has been noticed by numerous individuals, the local government and established civil society groups, such as London Citizens.
But what does the concept of co-operative advantage actually mean? The term has been popularised over the last few decades as a friendly version of the economic theories of comparative advantage and competitive advantage, which aim to explain financial gains for organisations that operate in more efficient ways than their competitors. Comparative advantages emerge in relatively open markets and are materialised into greater sales, margins and/or higher degrees of customer retention in comparison to those of the competition. In this economic sense, the co-operative advantage is where the co-operative model has an “edge” or a “fit” that offers a competitive advantage over private sector businesses.
Much has been written about the extra advantages that the co-operative model brings to the table. The obvious one is a co-operative’s edge in meeting needs not met by the private market, since co-operatives are bottom-up initiatives created by the same people who suffer those needs. Membership in some cases may offer advantages that are not available otherwise, such as a job, access to otherwise prohibitive facilities and services (e.g. in farming), or access to shared spaces or housing as in the case of RUSS and other community land trusts.
Trust is also often quoted as a positive condition for financial performance and is also one of the ingredients of the co-operative advantage, since the co-operative model can increase loyalty and lower monitoring costs between the organisation and its members. Members can be workers (such as the case of Infinity Wholefoods), consumers (Park Slope Food Coop) or a combination of member types as in the case of emerging multi-stakeholder co-operatives, such as the Manchester Veg People or the Ecological Land Co-operative. On the other hand, the democratic decision-making character of co-operatives is often considered a disadvantage: it is time demanding and inefficient in the short term. However, giving voice to members is a key ingredient of the co-operative advantage in the long run: it is consensus-building—or negotiated dissensus—and it generates innovation, cohesion and resilience amongst members involved. In the case of consumer co-operatives, having a democratic structure also allows the organisation to access suggestions and feedback from engaged consumer members