Can councils be co-operative?: Co-operative News

About 25 years ago I attended a meeting of Labour councillors from various local authorities across the country.  We started talking about problems with policing and a very serious councillor from the London Borough of Lambeth explained the answer: the solution, she said, was residents’ militias who would take over responsibility for law and order from the police.


The idea that Britain was on the verge of a workers’ revolution, in which militias would take a major role in reformulating society, was regarded in those days as realistic by some of the elected representatives of Brixton – even if not by the rest of us.  Things in Lambeth are very different today.


Following decades of political turmoil and major reorganizations, Lambeth has not only returned to the centre-ground of Labour politics, but it has also become the first ever declared ‘co-operative council’.  It may not, though, be the last.


Earlier this year, Labour groups from 115 councils in England and Wales (including the ruling groups in some of the major cities) signed-up to the ‘Co-operative Councils’ Mission Statement’.  This political model is very removed from those far-off days when revolution seemed (to a few) to be in the air.  Now it is local government cuts that are not just in the ether, but also, thanks to incoming communities secretary Eric Pickles, down on paper.


“In the wake of the financial crisis, and as we face what is likely to be the toughest public spending round for councils in recent memory – we believe that there has never been a time in which co-operative values and principles have been more important.  These offer a way to protect and improve frontline services as councils and the public sector face reductions in funding as a result of the recession, says the founding statement by the Labour groups.


The statement accepts that cuts are inevitable, but rejects service restructuring that will lead to what has been dubbed the Tory ‘easyCouncil’ approach – where basic services are free, but citizens must pay for an upgrade if they want higher quality standards. 


That kind of two-tier, pay-twice Tory model is unacceptable to progressive Labour councillors,” says the joint statement.  “For us, the future direction of local government should be based on the co-operative values of fairness, accountability and responsibility that will enable the creation of a more sustainable local economy and a new settlement between people and their public services.”


Nonetheless, converting principles of solidarity into practical steps of ‘humanised’ or acceptable service cuts will be no easy thing.  The co-operative Labour groups say they will protect frontline services.  But we have already seen that ‘efficiency cuts’ can be window dressing for something more damaging.  Much of the Government’s reductions in funding to local government is not about making backroom staff do their work more cheaply, but is in fact closing down schemes that were supposed to regenerate and rebuild parts of deprived cities.


So delivering co-operative cuts will be no easy task.  The idea is that there will be full consultation before cost reductions are agreed and communities will be given the opportunity to become more engaged in delivering services.  We will use whichever models are most appropriate to different services and different communities, including co-operatives, mutuals, or services with greater involvement from service users and the community,” says the joint statement.


We are beginning to see how this will work in practice in Lambeth, where Labour increased its already substantial majority in this year’s elections.  Council leader Steve Reed says: “Like all councils we know we’re facing cuts from 2011. We don’t know by how much, but it could be 15 to 20%. The responses we could make in that scenario are to cut services, to ration them to the most needy, or to charge for services. Or we could seek to find an alternative and that’s what we’re choosing to do.”


At the heart of this new approach – according to Lambeth council’s just published white paper – will be a radical rethink of the way public services are designed and delivered.  This not just about a change in who provides, for example, personalised care services to the housebound elderly.  It is actually in philosophical terms a re-evaluation of the decisions of the 1940s.  Those decisions created a welfare state that was highly protective and through which things were done to and done for the population, rather than giving people the means and the support for them to do things for themselves. 


The emphasis from the co-operative councils is on supporting individual and collective self-help.  Now the expectation is that “communities and individuals take responsibility to help themselves and one another”, says Lambeth’s paper.  The role of the council is to assist and encourage citizens to create a more effective and inclusive civic society.  As the borough withdraws from directly providing some services, the community will decide what services it wants and how citizens will work together to commission and provide these services.


The report specifies that Lambeth council must be “more than an organisation that delivers public services”.  But, of course, this implies that it is also an organisation that delivers much less in the way of public services.


Privatisation is not a word mentioned in the report, but in practice what is meant is that this will happen – but, as far as possible, to organisations run by the community.  One interesting example of how this would work is through the collectivisation of personal care budgets, with budget recipients jointly commissioning services more efficiently than individuals could do, but with services provided more responsively than is often the case with care services commissioned or supplied by the local authority.


Lambeth stresses that it already has a very strong history of enabling tenants to be engaged in the management of housing services and also with tenant-managed estates.  It would like now to see more examples of collective provision in the fields of housing, social care, child care and homelessness support, plus asset transfers of under-used facilities to community organisations.


The ambition is substantial – it is a beginning of a reshaping of the character of the local state, enabling an ethos of community engagement and a change in the structure and nature of local civil society.  A starting point in terms of the actual transfer to different models of provision is now underway in Lambeth through a Co-operative Council Commission, which is being established.  This will consist of six members – three councillors and three other residents – plus critical friends with a background in the movement to advise them.


There will also be a wider consultation – to which the UK Co-operative Council will contribute.  Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co‑operatives UK, welcomed this, saying: The Co-operative Council signifies the start of a major public debate on the future of public services in the London borough.  I am very much looking forward to making our submission to the Council’s advisory commission and to the publication of its report in October.”


Even before the report’s publication, a first wave of pilot schemes will begin this autumn, which will provide lessons to feed into the continuing work of the Commission that will proceed far beyond the end of this year.  This will be accompanied by a second wave of pilot schemes to assist with a programme of converting lessons learnt into practical policy development.


Cllr Steve Reed told the News that initial responses to the proposals have been very positive.  “It’s good,” he says.  “You get one or two bloggers who are cynical, but most ordinary people who have spoken to me are interested and want to know what it means for them and for services.  The citizens who are most involved are the most keen.”


A group that already runs a children’s centre has welcomed the policy of promoting community involvement in policy formation and services delivery, says Cllr Reed, and wants to take this further through the co-operative council initiative by operating a wider range of facilities.  Another example is a community group that wants to convert a library into an arts and crafts centre.  Lambeth’s leader says that over a dozen groups have contacted him as a result of the co-operative council proposals with ideas on how they can develop this – and he assumes other councillors will also have received representations.


But many readers will probably find much of this discussion uncomfortable – seeing it as using the rhetoric of co-operation to make cuts in social services more acceptable.  But there are several underlying facts that we cannot escape. 


The financial system has collapsed, leaving the state near enough bankrupt.  Demographic changes have substantially increased the cost of welfare provision, without there being any balancing increase in taxation revenues.  The most severe of those demographic trends are an ageing population and a sharp increase in the break-up of marriages and other parenting relationships – which in turn have increased the cost of benefits, childcare and social housing.  All this is taking place during a period in which wealth is shifting from West to East. 

These social and economic trends cannot be bucked and have severe implications for the affordability of the welfare state.


Whether a co-operative council model is a correct way to partially address this over-arching social crisis is just one question.  But at least it is an attempt to provide an answer.  Speaking personally I don’t have a better alternative.

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