The modern cooperative impulse has its roots in the implementation of the industrial revolution, when in different economic and social spheres, popular and middle classes sought collaborative networks to carry out agricultural, industrial, or service projects. In Spain, the first national congress was held in Barcelona in 1899, in which the agricultural unions and rural banks had special relevance, and in which different lectures were given on the thought of Proudhon, Ruskin, Marx, Owen and Sorel and the first cooperative experiences, which were taught by some intellectuals in Barcelona at the time (Pérez Baró, 1963).
Production cooperatives, consumer cooperatives and, to a lesser extent, housing cooperatives (referred to in those years as cheap houses) were the main study references. However, the impulse to cooperativism related to housing construction would be delayed until the second half of the 20th century, going hand in hand with real estate developmentalism that would greatly complicate the operation of these cooperatives.
Some impulses in the first decades of the 20th century carried out by railway workers’ cooperatives can be found in Madrid, Bilbao, or Burgos, among other places in Spain, but without sufficient continuity and solidity. Meanwhile, railway workers sought accommodation in privately rented rooms and buildings in precarious conditions, since in those years the supply of housing for workers by the railway companies was very scarce, and the housing deficit was evident (Cuéllar Villar, Jiménez Vega and Polo Muriel 2005).
During the first Francoist period, there were no major advances in this respect either, since the enactment of the Law of 2 January 1942 on cooperation and its subsequent regulations did not substantially change the little impetus given to housing construction by cooperative members. The deep crisis of self-sufficiency and the general economic weakness made this impulse impossible and we can hardly count cases of housing construction by railway cooperatives until the 1960s. One of the exceptions was in Valencia in the 1950s, with the impetus of the city’s Catholic Railway Brotherhood.
This is a feature that would be common to most of the railway cooperatives we have been able to study: the decisive role played by the secular organisations of the Catholic Church (the local Catholic brotherhoods), so closely linked to the Franco regime (Hermet, 1985), and the social policy departments of not a few companies, whether in the public sector or not, who in a paternalistic way encouraged the setting up of these cooperative groups and supervised their organisation (Valenzuela Rubio, 1977), as did the credit companies, especially the Montes de Piedad y Cajas de Ahorro, and banks, which were decisive in the financing of the projects (Blasco Torrejón, 1993).
In any case, the cooperative impulse for housing would become relevant from that moment onwards, since it joined well with the ideology of the regime (the search for a third way between socialism and capitalism, where cooperativism had a good fit) and, once the administrative obstacles had been freed and fluidity in the supply of materials had been achieved, it experienced a real explosion in the 1960s, when one out of every thirty new homes built was built as a cooperative (Vázquez Fraile, 1968).
Within this framework, RENFE, which had already faced a plan to build 4,000 homes from 1949 (later extended to 7,000), also encouraged the implementation of cooperative developments with the dual purpose of discharging its social tasks and meeting the growing demand for newly built homes.
Thus, the railway company issued circulars from the Directorate-General (No 300 and 302) to grant aid to railway operators who wished to purchase, build, or repair housing for them, although it was particularly aimed at those who set up cooperatives. Circular 300 regulated the conditions for granting individual financial aid to railwaymen for the purchase, construction, or repair of their homes from a fund which it entered each year in the company’s budget. These loans were recorded in the company’s assets, as they had to be paid back by the employees through payroll deduction. For its part, Circular 302 determined that the economic items included in the section on social purposes of the Network Modernisation Plan approved in 1964 would be used for financial aid to agents in the field of housing. It also established the regulations that were to regulate the granting of these loans and the entire administrative process that supported them.
The avalanche of requests and the constitution of cooperatives exceeded the forecasts and it soon became clear that the established financing system was insufficient to meet the demands of the railway workers, in addition to which we understand that it was being processed more slowly than expected. In a first evaluation of this possible inefficiency, the reality is that the requests were very numerous: according to our data, in the five-year period 1964-1969, approximately eight thousand houses were projected, promoted by some 70 cooperatives in 65 cities, of which around 6,500 houses were built in 1971, which gave a high success rate and a relatively fast execution time.
The situation of unmet demand for RENFE to cover the granting of loans led to the publication in 1967 of Circular 346 which established a new channel of financing consisting of channelling this aid through the savings banks, by means of loans arranged by the agents, but with the guarantee of the company itself. In other words, the company, grosso modo, went from being a financier to a guarantor.
The creation of the cooperatives was a significant relief for the structure of the railway employees’ housing stock, and therefore for RENFE. The contribution of the cooperative members, who were no longer counted as housing demanders for the company, was 10,000 homes in just 15 years, until the beginning of the 1980s, when changes had already taken place in the property sector, with the progressive decline of the cooperative system, and the generalization of a more open and individual market that led to the development of the housing savings model.
In any case, RENFE continued to assist the cooperatives in those logistical and administrative matters where its contribution was decisive. As the company itself pointed out, these problems could be either about the ownership of the land or about the inadequacy of the works budgets. The question of land was very important and caused notable delays, especially in the early years, when it was still not clear how to proceed and whether the land to be used should be requalified railway land or available under the new urban plans (Cuellar and Martinez-Corral 2018).
BLASCO TORREJÓN, B., 1993. Política de vivienda en España: un análisis global. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Servicio de Publicaciones.
CUÉLLAR, D. y MARTÍNEZ-CORRAL, A., 2018. Una casa para nuestros padres: una aproximación a las cooperativas de viviendas en España (1960-1985). IV Congresso Internacional sobre Património Industrial. Cidades e Património Industrial. Aveiro, Portugal: APPI.
CUÉLLAR VILLAR, D., JIMÉNEZ VEGA, M. y POLO MURIEL, F., 2005. Historia de los poblados ferroviarios en España. Madrid: Fundación de los Ferrocarriles Españoles.
HERMET, G., 1985. Los católicos en la España franquista. Vol. 1: Los actores del juego político. 1a ed. Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas: Siglo Veintiuno.
PÉREZ BARÓ, A., 1963. El cincuenta aniversario del Primer Congreso Nacional de Cooperativas de España. Estudios cooperativos, no. 4, pp. 59-62.
VALENZUELA RUBIO, M., 1977. La empresa industrial como promotor inmobiliario. Ciudad e Industria. Oviedo: Asociación Española para el Progreso de la Ciencias, pp. 211-227.
VÁZQUEZ FRAILE, A., 1968. El cooperativismo de viviendas ante el II Plan de Desarrollo. Estudios cooperativos, no. 14, pp. 33-52.