United Kingdom




United Kingdom

Key figures

Number of cooperatives per sector
Employees and members per sector
Key figures
Key figures

Research overview


Responding to challenges and existing knowledge gaps facing the cooperative movement, this mapping research seeks to provide exhaustive information on cooperatives around the world.

This is achieved through a process jointly conducted by the ICA and its four regional offices – Cooperatives of the Americas, Cooperatives Europe, ICA Africa, and ICA Asia-Pacific – using a common methodology, designed with the support of external experts from the European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprises (Euricse).

Each office collected the input of ICA members present in the countries within its geographic area, by using a common questionnaire, and completing it with relevant national statistics, in order to obtain a picture of the national situation. As a result, the data above is collected following two strategies: 1) a survey targeting ICA cooperative members 2) collecting national statistics already available in the country. The numbers above provide aggregated data from ICA members on the number of cooperatives, as well as the number of cooperative employees and memberships in the country. More methodological information is available in the full report. In the United Kingdom, the data is collected for the reference year 2020.

Mapping out cooperatives in each country provides a more precise picture of the cooperative context at national and regional levels, enhances the movement's visibility, networking, partnerships opportunities, as well as advocacy, and empowers cooperators by providing tools for positive change.

This webpage presents a snapshot of the research results for the United Kingdom. For more information and the full research results, you can download the highlights and the report by clicking on the links above.




Although cooperatives in the UK were already in existence by 1844, the cooperative movement in the country is inextricably linked to the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Co-operative Society. Set up in 1844, in the midst of the industrial revolution, its founders suffered periodic unemployment, low pay, and poor working conditions, and were also dependent on exploitative merchants who would charge high prices for goods.

The Rochdale Pioneers were motivated to cooperate against these forces of widespread poverty, but also influenced by contemporary social movements such as Owenism and Chartism. This early cooperative did not define the cooperative principles as we know them today, but were significant in defining that the cooperative be operated purely for service, as opposed to direct profit, as well as enshrining open and voluntary membership. The Rochdale Pioneers thus became and continue to be symbolic of the modern cooperative movement.

A first legal framework regulating English cooperatives emerged in 1852, the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, which followed years of lobbying to meet the needs of worker and consumer cooperatives. The law was considered instrumental for the growth of the cooperative movement. 

As a result of this growth, a number of cooperatives in the North of England joined forces to form the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), in 1863, with the Scottish CWS forming in 1868. The aim of the CWS was to supply member cooperatives with goods, by taking advantage of economies of scale. 

The UK was also the birthplace of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), which was founded in London during the 1st Cooperative Congress in 1895. The ICA’s purpose was to provide information, define and defend the cooperative principles and develop international trade. It was notably one of the only international organisations to survive both the First and Second World Wars.

The British cooperative movement, including the CWS, experienced a decline in the post-war period and during the latter half of the 20th Century, with the movement becoming less competitive in the face of changes to consumer habits. British consumer cooperatives failed to adapt to the rise of self-service retail and the growing dominance of innovate food retailers. 

The British cooperative movement experienced a “renaissance” around 2000. Building on previous ethical policies, including a boycott of South African produce during the Apartheid years, the CWS worked with the Fairtrade Foundation to introduce the Fairtrade Mark in 1992. The CWS merged with the CRS in 2001 to become the Co-operative Group, and with a modernised strategy, its annual turnover increased from £4.6 billion in 2000 to nearly £13.7 billion in 2010.

In 2001, the Co-operative Union also merged with the Industrial Common Ownership Movement in 2001, to become Co-operatives UK. Today, Co-operatives UK is the UK’s apex cooperative and a member of the ICA. It represents a growing cooperative movement with 14 million members, 241 thousand employees and an annual turnover of £38.2 billion pounds as of 2020.




The UK counts 2 ICA member organisations.

  • Co-operatives UK is a full ICA member. The network for thousands of cooperative businesses, Co‐operatives UK works to promote, develop and unite member-owned business worth more than £37 billion to the UK economy. Its mission is to grow the co-operative economy and it works to promote, develop and unite cooperatives across all sectors.
  • The Midcounties Co-operative is a full ICA member and is is the UK’s largest independent consumer co-operative. Their purpose is to “be a successful consumer co-operative working towards creating a better, fairer world and to enhance the lives of our colleagues, customers, and the communities we serve”. It offers services including travel, funeral care, energy, phone services, childcare, food and a pharmacy.


In the UK, the research questionnaire was completed by Co-operatives UK. The data collected was for the reference year 2020.




ICA members represent 7 063  cooperatives in the country, with a total number of memberships of 14 008 457, and an estimated 241 714 employees.

Member organisations are active in several sectors, including wholesale and retail trade, banking, agriculture and food, human health and social work, and real estate. Sectoral information is provided by Co-operatives UK. For a complete overview, see the full report. The graphics above provide more information. 


The legal framework analysis aims to provide general knowledge of the national cooperative legislation and of its main characteristics and contents, with particular regard to those aspects of regulation regarding the identity of cooperatives and its distinction from other types of business organisations, notably the for-profit shareholder corporation.

It aims to evaluate whether the national legislation in place supports or hampers the development of cooperatives, and is therefore “cooperative friendly” or not, and the degree to which it may be considered so, also in comparison to the legislation in force in other countries of the ICA region, or at the supranational level.

In addition, the research aims to provide recommendations for eventual renewal of the legal frameworks in place in order to understand what changes in the current legislation would be necessary to improve its degree of “cooperative friendliness”, which is to say, to make the legislation more favourable to cooperatives, also in consideration of their specific identity. This webpage presents a snapshot of the legal framework analysis results for the United Kingdom. 



Cooperatives in the UK are primarily regulated by the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 (the 2014 Act) which applies in England, Wales and Scotland, but also to those societies in Northern Ireland that choose to record their rules in England. The registrar for cooperative and community benefit societies established under the 2014 Act is the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), and its functions in relation to registered societies are as a registrar, rather than a regulator.

There is no express reference to the ICA Principles in the 2014 Act. However, they become relevant through the registrar’s Guidance. The Guidance sets out the registrar’s approach to its role as registering authority for societies under the 2014 Act. The registrar generally expects to verify and validate whether Principles 1 to 4 have been met through the rules and governance arrangements of a cooperative society.


Cooperative friendliness

The national expert concludes that the UK is cooperative unfriendly. There is no recognition of cooperatives as a distinct and legitimate type of organisation, with a wide range of legal forms available for cooperatives. Because there is no recognition of a cooperative as a distinct type of enterprise, there is no statutory definition of a cooperative, and the only protection that the law provides is through the function of the registrar.  


Key recommendations for improvement 

The national expert recommends a statutory definition of “cooperative” which is linked to the ICA principles, as well as enhanced powers for the registrar such that it acts as a regulator to ensure only cooperatives meeting the definition are registered. A replacement of withdrawable share capital with a type of share which can be repaid by the cooperative, enabling the society to maintain control over its own capital, is also recommended. Among its recommendations, Co-operatives UK argues that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should be responsible for legislative and policy-making for societies, and also for registration to be more closely linked to the department.  



Since its origins in the nineteenth century, there has never been a formal and proper review of UK cooperative law with a view to optimising the contribution it can make to the common good in the UK. As a result, although it is widely regarded as the birthplace of cooperation, UK cooperative law remains comparatively under-developed, with the result that the territory is an unfriendly environment for the establishment and promotion of cooperatives.


The legal frameworks analysis is a tool developed under the ICA-EU Partnership #coops4dev. It is an overview of the national legal frameworks at the time of writing. The views expressed within are not necessarily those of the ICA, nor does a reference to any specific content constitute an explicit endorsement or recommendation by the ICA. 


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