52 Things - Number 7: Set up an oil-buying co-operative

Overview and Background:

It is a well-known fact that living rurally can mean higher fuel prices, higher bills, and a higher cost of living. Where villages are situated off the mains gas grid and are geographically-isolated, heating homes can become a major issue during the winter months, when oil prices increase as the temperatures drop.

The approach: 

In order to collectively save money, alleviate worry, and reduce rates of fuel poverty in rural areas, a community could consider setting up an oil co-operative. There are already many successful schemes running across Yorkshire, entirely volunteer-led, and which have produced a wealth of useful resources. One of these cooperatives is found in Dalton and Gayles, a village on the very edge of North Yorkshire on the border with Durham.

Dalton and Gayles’ oil cooperative is led by Linda, Clare and Carole, who initiated the scheme when they realised many people – especially older people – were struggling to afford the prices and wished to save money for themselves. They had also noticed a pattern of ‘misplaced loyalty’ where local people were buying from the same suppliers, under the impression that they would get a good deal.

Linda, one of the coordinators, explains: “I was paying more for my oil than my friend was, even though we bought from the same supplier and received our deliveries on the same day. After I retired, I did some more research into the area and contacted Rural Action Yorkshire, who sent out an expert to tell us more about oil cooperatives and how we could set one up.

“It was invaluable support as we were provided with standard documents, for things like membership agreements, from another oil co-op who had gone through the process.”

The three coordinators ascertained interest from other residents by holding meetings in the local village hall and advertising in local flyers and the parish magazine. They were approached by other villages who wanted to join in, and by early 2013 the Gayles, Dalton, Kirby Hill and Whashton Oil Co-op was born.

So far, the cooperative has been a huge success, with estimated savings of £12,647 in total. To illustrate the benefit on an individual basis, a member would have saved £221 if they had ordered the minimum 500 litres with each of their orders since the co-op began.When considered alongside the fuel and running costs saved by reducing the amount of trips needed to deliver the oil, and on the carbon emissions this also saves, the economic and environmental return will be a lot higher. Linda estimates that the co-op has saved over 300 tanker journeys up to August 2014.

As with all volunteer-led projects, there can be hard work involved. For the cooperative, the ladies have tried to streamline the process but admit that considerable time is still spent on administering each order.

Carole, volunteer co-ordinator, explains: “We split the duties between us but the biggest problem is getting a prompt response from the suppliers. We try to operate by email as much as we can, but we have found some resistance in companies who refuse to deal with cooperatives, and others who have formed ‘cartels’ with each other. There is no government regulation in the same way as there is with other fuels and industries, and that means there are very few truly independent suppliers.”

Each village’s order of oil in the scheme is co-ordinated by volunteers from that village who take charge of this and deliveries, and those interested in participating can join the scheme as members. For this reason, it is important to draw up membership agreements, as Carole advises, “People do expect a lot from you and forget we are only volunteers, so you need to be clear that you don’t resolve disputes between the customer and the supplier for example. It is a lot of co-ordinating, so you need to be clear from the start on what can be expected from you.”

What next: 

As a result of RAY’s support, Dalton and Gayles have been able to maintain contact with other co-ops in order to share best practice and discuss any problems when they arise. This networking has been a great way to reduce issues and come up with solutions quickly and efficiently. It has been a huge positive for all of the communities involved.

“Our area suffers greatly from poor broadband and other services which are being cut, but the co-op has been a positive and has saved everybody money,” Linda says.

“We looked at a co-op for coal and logs but it didn’t work out to be practical, so we’d be keen to hear if this has worked for anybody else. Other than that, the co-op has brought us together as a community and we have not looked back since.”