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Home Opinion Britain’s first co-operative council
Localism • Public Services • Mutualism

Britain’s first co-operative council

Sally Prentice - 06 June 2012

Hands-on localism championed by a Labour-led London council could help reshape the settlement between citizens and the state
          
Lambeth council is transforming itself into Britain’s first Co-operative Council.  This new approach to public service delivery aims to reshape the settlement between citizens and the state by handing more power to local people so that a real partnership of equals can emerge.  The Co-operative Council draws inspiration from the values of fairness, accountability and responsibility that have driven progressive politics in this country for centuries, and from the self-organising traditions of friendly societies, guild socialism and the Rochdale Pioneers, which led to the creation of the Labour party.

Labour Co-operative Councils Network

The Co-operative Council model has generated considerable debate, interest and enthusiasm both locally within Lambeth and across the country, with the formation of the Labour Co-operative Councils Network.  Over 130 local and national organisations and approximately 3,000 Lambeth residents participated in the consultation process.

At a time of unprecedented reductions in public expenditure – Lambeth Council and other councils serving deprived inner city communities have seen the largest reductions - all public service organisations have to find new and better ways to deliver public services in the 21st century with less funding.  However, to see the Co-operative Council simply as a response to public service cuts is to fundamentally misunderstand the whole ethos underpinning the new approach.

Civic engagement

Councillor Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth council, is determined to devolve power to residents so they can actively take control of the services they receive and the communities in which they live.  A Co-operative Council seeks to do things with its community rather than do things to the community.  At its heart, the Co-operative Council is about working with residents, community groups, social enterprises and local businesses, to learn, develop, test and implement new approaches to solving seemingly intractable social problems such as youth crime, mental illness, obesity and worklessness.  

The Co-operative Council model draws on Lambeth’s most priceless asset – the huge degree of civic engagement by its residents in all sorts of activities – from community gardening to the arts, church young groups to cycling.  Half of Lambeth’s residents have a degree, there are more tenant managed estates than anywhere else in the country and London’s first ‘Transition Town’ was founded in Brixton.

The limits of ‘top down’ public services

Lambeth was a much better place in 2010 than in 1997.  Housing estates had improved, crime had fallen significantly, more lone parents were going out to work and teenage pregnancy rates – among the highest in the country – were on a downward trajectory.  Schools had been transformed.  In the mid 1990s parents would move or send their children to schools outside the borough.  By 2010, Lambeth’s results at Key Stage 2 (test results for 11 year olds) and GCSE exceeded the national average.  Lambeth schools benefited from huge investment in staff, buildings and leadership.  Lambeth had three new secondary schools and 27 Children’s Centres; expenditure per primary pupil doubled.

Yet, the persistent problem of violent youth crime in Lambeth shows the limitations of the ‘top down’ model of investment, reform and performance management that embodied New Labour’s approach to public services reform nationally and locally.  In 2006 Labour returned to power in Lambeth and inherited the worst funded youth service in inner London and a growing problem of deaths of innocent young men from gun and knife crime.  Over the next four years, the Labour administration invested over £3 million in universal and targeted youth services, delivered by the council and voluntary organisations; created the Lambeth Youth Mayor; and set up an independent commission to consider causes and solutions to the problem of gang related violence, which led to a comprehensive programme of targeted interventions led by the Children and Young People’s Service.  Although the programme was partially successful in diverting some young people from gang related crime, the outcomes were modest given the level of resources invested, and more significantly, gang violence and murders continued to increase. By 2010 a new approach was required.

Youth services: the co-operative model in action

The starting point for developing a new approach to reducing violent youth crime is that the council needs to use its resources - staffing, funding and facilities - to enable local residents and community leaders to develop their own solutions to stopping young people joining gangs and enable those young people who are gang members to make different choices.  Lambeth Council’s Active Communities team has facilitated the creation of Lambeth’s Community Leaders Network, which brings together people from across the borough who are working both in a voluntary and paid capacity with some of Lambeth’s most vulnerable young people and their families to share experience and expertise.  

Youth services are one of Lambeth Council’s ‘early adopter’ projects to demonstrate the Co-operative Council model in action.  A new youth and play mutual trust has been created which young people, local residents and community groups are being encouraged to join. Lambeth Council is transferring the £3 million budget that the council currently spends on youth and play services to the trust, so the trust will have a significant budget to commission services in line with young people’s priorities.  Lambeth is transferring responsibility for running its seven adventure playgrounds, which have higher costs than those run by the voluntary sector, to the trust.

Young people will have a much greater say in how money is spent and how services are delivered, building on the success of the Lambeth Youth Mayor, Lambeth Youth Parliament and the Corporate Parenting Board in engaging young people.  However, Lambeth is not walking away from its responsibilities.  The Council will have places on the new trust board, and will continue to have statutory responsibilities towards vulnerable young people involved in the criminal justice system and those who are on the child protection register and looked after children.  The trust model is one of the council working in partnership with residents to design and deliver public services rather than simply ‘outsourcing’ a set of services and leaving residents to sink or swim.

The mutual trust model will enable a much wider range of people and organisations to become involved in enabling children and young people to enjoy sport, music, drama and other creative activities, and outdoor play.  Youth services have always been a Cinderella public service. Local authority youth services are characterised by a lack of professional leadership, an ageing workforce and a focus on buildings rather than young people.  Passion, energy, drive and ambition in working with young people is to be found in the voluntary and community sector.  Councils should stop running youth services and transfer power to young people to commission and run their own services.

Libraries as community hubs

Library services will also be delivered in a different way in Lambeth.  Lambeth’s library service is characterised by high costs and low usage levels, with buildings requiring substantial capital investment, an out of date book stock and very limited access to technology.  The best feature of the library service is the active participation of friends groups in each library.  A six-month Library Commission has recommended that Lambeth runs three central libraries, including the new Clapham Library to open in 2012, and that the other libraries are run in partnership with friends groups, with each library deciding how best to use its budget.  Some libraries will be developed as community hubs, with the building offering a wider range of services, in line with local priorities.  The medium term plan involves setting up a trust to run their libraries which will enable the library service to attract additional sources of funding.  By developing a new model of library services, Lambeth will be harnessing the commitment and enthusiasm of many local residents to literature, learning and local civic engagement, and avoiding the highly damaging process of attempting to close libraries that other local authorities have embarked upon.

A new way forward for delivering public services

Lambeth’s Co-operative Council offers a new way forward for delivering public services through citizen engagement and sharing power, resources and decision-making, which embodies Labour’s tradition of civic participation, community ownership and self-organisation.  The model has generated considerable interest across Labour local government and it will be interesting to see how the model translates from theory into practice, and from inner city London to former industrial heartlands.

Sally Prentice is a councillor for the London Borough of Lambeth

This memo follows on from the international workshop "Moving Forward with Mutuals and Co-operatives"

This initiative is organised by Policy Network in partnership with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), the Brussels‐based thinktank Gauche Réformiste Européenne and Solidar

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: Sally Prentice , Lambeth , London , Localism , Public Services , Mutualism , Labour , Labour Co-operative Councils Network , local government , public services , education

Comments

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Daniel
15 August 2012 10:15

Hi, I want to say save our Librarians' jobs not just our Libraries. Their expertise is imptnoart. Say No to turning it into a voluntary community; why should our labour be free? Do the Banks use volunteers? Does Parliament function on volunteers? No! So keep our Libraries as they are and make the Council find other ways to save money. Libraries bring communities together in many ways. They stop people feeling isolated; children get to experience Books and Art which they can't always get at home. People go there to read the papers. Those without open spaces can enjoy The Turrill gardens at the back of the Library. Perhaps we could have a coffee shop to help support it. Please see the bigger picture, our Library helps everyone.Best wishes,Kate

Bunny Colvin
09 June 2012 09:22

Another day, another self-congratulatory article about Lambeth's "co-operative" council. When you are a member of a 40 year old housing co-operative whose members are being dragged through the courts towards eviction, all of this rhetoric is hard to take. This is exactly what is happening in Lambeth. Social housing units are being sold at auction to plug a deficit, a deficit caused in part, by maladministration and fraud. Despite being told by councillors that we “have given a welcome permanence and continuity to the area" they show little interest in being shown an alternative, co-operative way of dealing with people who maintained housing stock that was abandoned and scheduled for demolition. We've advanced the notion of a 'Super Co-op' as an umbrella co-op for so-called "shortlife" housing, the idea being that housing could pass into council stock after the co-op has brought it up to standard (i.e. continue what we have already been doing) and after that other houses could be brought into use by what would essentially be a house "recycling scheme". This is a tangible co-operative option and an alternative to using an expensive law firm to intimidate us. All "shortlife" residents support co-operative measures in the borough and the points raised above, especially about youth services, are valid. However, if we want to set a good example for our younger people then we have to make sure that are elected representatives are not seen to be issuing empty statements of support on the one hand and using threats to long-standing residents on the other. The message of "shortlife recall" is that community doesn't matter, so if you don't value that, what have you got left?

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