The Co-op

Argus title : Let’s keep the Co-op spirit alive

My friend Geoff used to describe the London Road Co-op as “our very own little piece of Eastern Europe here in Brighton”. This was in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Soviet Union still existed, and the cold war was sputtering to an end.

The words were affectionate, but beneath his indulgent laughter it was possible to detect an undercurrent of frustration. What he meant was that the store, though a wonderful place, was chronically inefficient and bureaucratic.

I understood his mixed emotions. I love the store, but at times it drives me mad. When the former Hannington’s Department Store was closed, I referred to it as a “grand old lady”. The Co-op is more like an eccentric old aunt who keeps dropping her change and forgetting her glasses. Or an idle old uncle who drinks too much at the family party and hopes no one will notice he’s burned a hole in the carpet.

As an organisation, it’s full of contradictions. On the one hand it has a keen sense of its historical importance to the social and economic life of central Brighton, but on the other it tends to take its core customers for granted – expecting its older working class clientele to put up with delays and long queues, failing to appreciate that changing demographics mean that younger and more affluent customers just won’t put up with it.

The Co-op has a fine record of employing people with disabilities and is welcoming to customers who are frail or vulnerable. However, it can be cavalier about health and safety matters, expecting its staff to work in airless and often unbearably hot conditions, in most departments forbidding staff members to sit down.

It has committed staff and excellent stock and many departments are well run. But there just aren’t enough staff and they are poorly supported.

I was in the food hall the evening before the Argus reported the store’s closure. As so often happens, there was a problem at the till. A huge queue began to build as staff searched frantically for a supervisor.

Over the years I have witnessed many such scenes. Usually I don’t comment, but on this occasion I grinned and said: “This is the worst managed store I’ve ever seen”. The assistant, who must have heard about the closure that day, simply winced. I felt very sorry for what I had said when I read the news, but also very angry.

The Co-op store was set up in 1824 on co-operative principles developed by Dr William King. King realised that poor and exploited workers would benefit if they combined to run their own shops.

The Co-op Group which runs the Brighton retail outlet claims to operate in line with co-operative values “of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity”…”honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.” As one of its stated Principles it declares that “Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions” and asserts that at all levels co-operatives are “organised in a democratic manner.”

In fact, the Co-op failed to consult either its members or its staff on the decision to close. It acted like any other profit-making concern, simply informing staff – some of whom have worked for the Co-op for years- that their jobs were to go. To this day it hasn’t informed its member-shareholders.

It’s disappointing that a concern which used to trade under the slogan of “your caring sharing co-op” and which was one of the first retailers to promote Fair-Trade goods in its stores, has apparently failed to deal fairly with its own staff and customers.

My family members have been loyal customers of the Co-op since we first came to Brighton. In the past 30 years we must have visited the store many thousands of times. To us, as to many people, the shop is an extension of our home, a centre of our community.

We chose to buy there, not just because it was convenient, but because we supported co-operative principles. So we’re really angry that as members we weren’t consulted about the proposed closure.

Over the years my family and I furnished our homes with Co-op goods and stocked our kitchens with Co-op food, grinning when the manager told us the reason the Co-op doesn’t stock aubergines is “because nobody wants them”.

I like the gentle pace and the wide aisles and, above all, I like the people there. I like the old people who totter along there with their sticks and zimmer frames. I like the young mums with kids in buggies and the mean girls with bare midriffs and mildly infected body piercings.

I like the capacious bras hang in the underwear department and the old fashioned courtesy of the staff.

I like the staff in the haberdashery and knitting wool department. I like the toy department, where for years we bought our daughter’s Lego and Polly Pockets and Barbies.

I even like the café, which makes the worst macaroni cheese in the city. The last time my father was well enough to go shopping, we had lunch there. That was 7 years ago and the café was as full of elderly people as it is today.

The Co-op is a life line for older people. The pace is slow and this suits frail people. Nobody hassles customers if they’re disorientated or drop their change.

The Co-op Group is in discussions with the Anglia Regional Co-operative Group – already a major department store operator – about the possibility that it may acquire some of the 36 stores it is closing. If this initiative fails, the only hope for the Brighton store is that it may be taken over by a private retail concern (I’d go for John Lewis).

David Lepper, the local Labour and Co-operative Party M.P. has said he will do all he can to support a bid from Anglia. However, Brighton & Hove Council is being alarmingly coy on the subject. Despite the fact that over the past few years the city has lost major departments stores such as Vokins and Hanningtons, shedding hundreds of (usually women’s) jobs, neither the Council’s press officer nor a spokesperson in the Regeneration Team would commit themselves to support retention of a department store on this site.

Instead, I was pointed in the direction of the London Road and Lewes Road Urban Capacity Study which will be considered by the Policy and Resources Committee on 9th November 2005.

Councillor Sue John, deputy leader and chair of Brighton, Hove and Adur Area Investment Framework Board, said of it: “This study has given us some useful pointers to what needs to be done in the London Road and Lewes Road area. The resulting guidance will help us regenerate this part of Brighton and create new jobs, affordable housing and improved infrastructure.

“…It will also be vital that people who live and work in these locations are involved from the earliest stage.”

In the light of these encouraging words I expected to be able to read a copy of the report. However, to my consternation I discovered that the report is not publicly available and will be discussed by councillors in private session. This raises the possibility that it may be amended before the public – who need “to be involved from the earliest stage” – have had a chance to read it.

I am alarmed. I fear that council officers may judge this to be a development ‘opportunity’ not the potential disaster it actually is. This may lead them to argue for so called ‘affordable housing’ in the upper floors with ‘new’ small businesses on the ground floor – in effect a down market version of the development on the old Hannington’s site.

Local business people date the decline of London Road from the time when Marks and Spencer pulled out. They dread the removal of Sainsbury’s. They need a regeneration plan to help uplift the London Road shopping area and its Market, but it must be balanced, supporting large outlets and existing small businesses – and the jobs that go with them.

I watch the Co-op’s elderly customers walking slowly to the store and the harassed parents trailing children who cost more than they can afford. These are not fashionable London ‘weekenders’ or the well heeled residents of the ‘The Place to Be’, but they are at the city’s heart.

They should be at the heart of plans for the city.

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