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How not to follow Solidair into thin air

PN examines the fate of Dutch co-operative network

Stuart Field is in a unique position to comment on the discussions within Radical Routes, as not only has he been involved in the network since it incorporated in 1992 (first as a volunteer and later as the paid finance worker), he also worked for five years for a similar co-operative network in Holland called Solidair.

Solidair is over 10 years older than Radical Routes (RR), having its origins in the mid-1970s. Recently, Solidair has dissolved most of its network, and is winding up its loan-making facility in 2015.

Not so radical

The two organisations are not directly comparable: RR ‘started with the idea of radical social change in the sense of homes without landlords, work without bosses, and education without teachers’, said Field, while Solidair ‘doesn’t have any specific radical aspects’.

For Field, the one thing the two organisations do have in common ‘is the idea of taking control of your own housing, [and your] own work.’

One major difference, in Field’s eyes, was that in Radical Routes, the work of keeping the organisation going has always been voluntary (apart from the paid finance worker). Each co-op has a ‘work commitment’, and is meant to contribute six days a quarter to the organisation, or less if the c0-op is small.

Solidair instead has always paid for the work involved in running the organisation, which led to steep costs for members, of up to £1,200 a year for the highest-earning individuals.

For Field, the co-op work commitment is a more important part of the organisation’s identity than the individual 15-hour rule.

Problems

The Solidair financial model for housing loans stopped working, Field believes, because while property prices kept rising, while the state put a cap on rents under a certain level.

Solidair continued making loans to co-ops and self-employed people, until the state forced the major banks to issue loans to small businesses after the financial crisis.

So, Solidair’s offers became obsolete, the group’s micro-credits were replaced with a government program called ‘Qredits’; the other projects it supported with grants and loans started receiving government funding; and even charities the network supported became less vital, leaving the organization with few roles to fill in society.

Lessons

For Field, Radical Routes can learn two important things from the failure of Solidair.

Mainly, Radical Routes should make every effort to keeps its organisation as simple as possible. According to Field, Solidair became too complex, so that it became nearly impossible to get anything done.

If the structure of Radical Routes became this involved, Field warned: ‘there will just be a small bunch of geeks who understand it and everyone else will just get bored.’

The other big problem was that the cost of operating Solidair became too much for its members to handle.

Solidair (in Dutch): www.solidair.nl

Kim Golden is a US student journalist working with PN in London.