Is there a role for local residents to play in designing services they will be using? Across the UK, local councils are adopting co-operative approaches to deliver services in their areas.
At its annual meeting in Oldham, the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network looked at the potential for co-operative models as solutions to some of the problems faced by their communities.
The network was created in 2013 as a non-party-political active hub for co-operative policy development, innovation and advocacy and is open to all UK councils.
Speaking at the conference, the network’s chair, Councillor Sharon Taylor, leader of Stevenage Borough Council, explained how many issues faced by local councils could be solved by using a co-operative approach.
She described how in Stevenage the council is tackling domestic abuse by developing a holistic programme with help from victims and survivors as well as civil society partners. The council set up a victims’ forum and frontline staff were trained to recognise victims of abuse. Those affected can also take part in coffee morning where they can receive support and advice.
“Make links between the council as an institution and civil society and people subject to your policies,” she encouraged delegates. “With every piece of work we are trying to link it with citizens who are going to use that services, they help design and lead in that service.”
Another project saw the council ask children and young people to select the equipment they wanted in their local parks. The council is renovating seven parks, and the approach not only ensures that young people get what they want, but also helps avoid vandalism.
Ms Taylor added that the co-operative model could also be used to provide solutions in housing and social care.
Cllr Peter Bradbury, a cabinet member for culture and leisure at Cardiff Council, told the event that such initiatives had to be community-led.
“The council cannot see it as an opportunity to offload council services to people, but sometimes engaging with communities to bring services at more local level is a good thing,” he said.
Cllr Bradbury said housing and sport are two key areas where co-ops in Cardiff can make a difference. His ward is not far from the Home Farm Village Housing Co-op, which provides 41 affordable rented homes.
In terms of sport, he thinks supporter trusts, which are fan-owned co-ops, can make a difference at local level by providing some of the services currently offered by the council. A similar initiative has seen some schools in Cardiff involved in a community schools programme open their doors after hours for the community to use their sports halls.
Cllr Richard Farnell, leader of Rochdale Borough Council and vice chair of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network, said services could be delivered differently by working with communities to set up co-ops and community enterprises.
“We are always looking at new ways of delivering services more cheaply,” he said, “and supporting local co-ops is one way of saving services and avoiding them closing down, particularly customer facing services.
“Another big issue we are taking away from this conference is the fact that local government is changing with devolution. Co-op councils have to take the lead in ensuring we deliver these services in a better way, not just how local government used to run these. We need to look at new models of delivering services and co-ops will have a major role to play in that.”
He added: “Co-ops have to take the lead in the debate about how we take these new devolved services from central government and connect them better with the public. Too often councils have been too paternalistic. Co-op councillors should be using the debate about how we fully engage with local communities, users of services, how we can connect carers, community volunteers and parents.”
Simon Parkinson, principal and chief executive of the Co-operative College, touched on the concept of co-operative leadership for local councillors.
“There is this notion of trying to develop a co-op approach to leadership, but co-op leadership does not mean consulting with everybody all the time for everything,” he said.
Mr Parkinson described the model he envisions for co-operative leadership as being responsible, accountable for delivery, consulting and informing (RACI).