Our second article in the Merger He Wrote series is from guest writer Steve Reed. Steve is Labour MP for Croydon North, UK Shadow Minister for Crime Prevention, and Hon. President of the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network. He was Leader of Lambeth Council 2006-12.
There are 24 councils in the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network right across the UK. Their aim is to transform the way they work with communities, handing more power to citizens over the services they use, and by doing that making services more effective and efficient. Lambeth was the first cooperative council, outlining its plans in 2010 ahead of that year’s general election.
The core principle behind cooperative councils is sharing power with citizens, cooperating with them instead of dictating to them, and the reason for doing that is because it leads to better outcomes. There are many reasons why councils, and public services more generally, need to change. Although these councils are changing at a time of severe cuts in funding this is not a cuts-led agenda, it’s something that would be necessary whatever the level of resources because it makes services work better for the people they exist to serve.
Our current model of public services and welfare was set up in the aftermath of World War Two. Today we are a far more diverse society, less deferential, and with higher expectations about quality and control over the services we use. The old top-down model of public services that expects people to quietly put up with whatever’s on offer whether they like it or not is no longer good enough. At a time of austerity, with many councils losing over half their available budget, Labour councillors are not prepared to let the people we represent become the victims of the UK Government’s ideological cuts. That means we have to find different ways to provide the help people need rather than simply cut away the support they depend on.
In Lambeth we piloted people power in a number of services and sought to extend the approach across everything the council did. Blenheim Gardens is a council housing estate in Brixton. For years it was a place no one wanted to live. It was crime-ridden with open drug dealing and high levels of anti-social behaviour, many residents were behind with their rent, the estate was dirty and basic services like repairs were poor.
That all changed when residents took control through a resident management organisation. Once a year the residents came together to elect a board which employed the estate’s housing staff. Instead of reporting to managers in the town hall, employees were now directly accountable to residents living on the estate. Over a few years the estate improved dramatically, so that today it has a very good repairs service, high levels of rent collection, low levels of crime, and not only looks spotless but the run-down old central mall has been transformed into a laid-out garden funded by a surplus generated by greater efficiency in managing the estate. People who once wanted to move out now never want to leave.
This is a powerful example of cooperation in action. Instead of subjecting residents to services determined by managers in the town hall, residents now have the power to make sure services meet their expectations. And who is better placed to know what needs to change than the people living on the estate or using a particular service? This isn’t about making residents run services themselves – the housing professionals still do that; but those professionals are now directly accountable to the people who use their services, and that is the change that results in such dramatic improvement.
This approach doesn’t just work in housing. Lambeth also has a youth services trust, the Young Lambeth Cooperative, that puts more control over youth services in the hands of the borough’s young people. They use that power to target interventions and support on young people living in communities with high levels of crime and disaffection and help turn young lives around. It works much better than the old model of managers choosing what support young people need because young people themselves know better what problems they face. Again, they are not expected to run services themselves, but the professionals who run them are now directly accountable to the young people and communities they come from.
There’s no one model for handing more power to service users and citizens. It’s an approach more than a rigid system, but the sure sign you’re heading in the right direction is if people feel they have more control over their lives as a result. Vulnerable older and disabled people can be given more control over the care services they use by helping them choose from options funded by a personalised budget, and those budgets can be pooled to give individuals more clout as a collective.
Edinburgh is setting up a city-wide childcare cooperative to increase provision and reduce costs. Plymouth have set up dozens of local energy co-ops that generate energy sustainably, sell it back to the National Grid, and use the proceeds to reduce the energy bills of poorer households. Oldham have set up an ethical care company that pays staff the Living Wage and makes sure clients get better than a rudimentary 15-minute visit. FutureGov run an online services that brings together people who can’t cook for themselves with neighbours who are prepared to cook an extra portion at mealtimes and take it round for them to eat.
Trust in politics and politicians is at an all-time low, and part of the answer is to show that we trust people enough to hand them more power. We have to learn to do things with people instead of doing things to people. The UK is one of the most centralised states in the world, and our model of running public services reflects that urge to control things centrally. It doesn’t work. We need to unlock the creativity and innovation of our own communities, foster leadership at every level, and give people the power they need to make the changes they want to see.
There will always be an important role for politics in allocating resources, ensuring minimum standards are exceeded, and making sure services remain open equally to everyone who needs to use them. But the idea that politicians always know best and can treat the public like children, choosing what’s best for them and expecting them to be grateful, is dead.
Every council that’s adopted the cooperative approach has done things their own way. That’s no surprise. Every community has its own priorities, its own strengths and capabilities, and it’s important to build on that rather than impose an outside model. Empowered communities are more resilient in meeting the challenge of a rapidly changing world, and services that recognise and value the importance of human relationships not only work better but shape stronger communities.
Handing power to the people has always been central to progressive politics. It challenges politicians because it means we have to let go. It’s challenging to Labour because instead of championing familiar institutions we have to champion the things they were set up to do. We have to stand alongside our communities and help them to be the agents of change. This demands a new vision of the state and public services and a new way of doing politics. The way to help our communities realise their true potential is to confront the inequality of power that holds them back. Our cooperative councils are showing how we can do that.