Creating a Co-operative Council for Oldham

As part of a collection of essays published by ResPublica (Making it Mutual: The ownership revolution that Britain needs), Barbara Brownridge, from Oldham Council, looks at how adopting...

As part of a collection of essays published by ResPublica (Making it Mutual: The ownership revolution that Britain needs), Barbara Brownridge, from Oldham Council, looks at how adopting the co-operative model has changed the council's focus . . .

Oldham, like most local authorities, is facing prolonged reduction in revenue, which seriously affect its ability to continue to provide the full range of services that are currently provided at a time when the demand for those services is rising. The ever widening gap between supply and demand had, therefore, to be urgently addressed.

At the same time, Oldham had other significant problems. There was a severe disconnect between residents and the Council as the residents did not trust the Council although they valued the services it provided. There was a significant problem of unemployment with the Oldham rate being the highest in Greater Manchester and also with those in work being primarily paid very low wages. Although educational attainment had been improved most of those achieving the highest level of qualifications did not stay in the borough leaving a workforce that was largely unskilled. Many of those who left cited the long period of non investment in the infrastructure of the town as a reason for leaving.

The incoming administration had, therefore, to address the issue of how to improve the town, to secure additional inward investment particularly in jobs to allow residents more opportunities to improve their quality of life and to protect the services needed by the most vulnerable despite the reduction in resources.

The administration realised that the fundamental issue that had to be addressed was an overdependence on the council which for many had become the first port of call for any problems – an example of this is a request for the council to pick up a wheelie bin that had blown over in the wind – which meant that there had to be a major culture change with residents recognising that there were things they could do for themselves thereby freeing up resources. The council was, however, also of the view that they wanted those services they did supply to remain in the public sector as a first choice in order to capitalise on the experience and expertise that existed in the sector.

The first step, therefore, was to examine all of the services that the council provided and how they were delivered and to question what value they actually added. This involved talking to all participants – residents, staff, and other service providers such as the NHS and the voluntary sector – with a view to managing and reducing service demand, with residents and council working together to make the town a more productive place: ‘Everybody does their bit and everybody benefits’. This was our definition of a co-operative council and the ambition was subsequently extended to include not just the council but the borough as a whole.

Creating a co-operative council

To operate as a co-operative council required an ambitious change strategy for the organisation alongside radical plans to transform how decisions are made, services are delivered and most importantly the town as a place. It was vital, moreover, that the co-operative agenda was not a rebranding exercise but a driver of change for all aspects of the council’s business and planning.

The first step was to hold a Borough-wide ‘co-operative conversation’ to engage as many voices as possible in shaping the approach, the opportunities and most importantly the values which would be the foundation for the whole agenda. Through a partnership Co-operative Commission this was put into a Co-operative Charter. Leading from the front, the Council developed and adopted an ethical framework which clearly sets out how the Council will use its resources to support and deliver a Co-operative Oldham: it is the public sector equivalent of a Corporate Social Responsibility statement. For example, the council itself pledged to adopt the Oldham living wage, currently £7.11 per hour, and had set out to encourage all businesses and services with which it deals to do the same.

It is also committed to incorporating social value into its commissioning so that account can be give where there are specific community benefits, in addition to the delivery of the basic service. There is recognition, for example, that keeping elderly people in their own homes can reduce the need for, and cost of, residential care but that this is only the case if they receive the proper support which may well be more expensive than basic domiciliary care.

The council is also working to open up its public services to new models, such as co-operatives and mutuals, to ensure that local communities have greater opportunities to have a real ownership stake in the services that they use, and to catalyse new markets that can better respond to communities’ needs. Given that this is a major change, it will be important for the council to work with partners, employees and communities to provide the necessary support for such transitions to take place.

Devolving power to local areas

The other step taken in the early stages of development was the decision to devolve power to local areas. The administrative area of Oldham was created out of a number of smaller district councils and as a result consists of six distinct neighbourhoods, each consisting of three or four wards. Each is covered by a District Partnership, which are formal committees of the council with decision making powers and involve other partners such as the police and the NHS. Each one has its own town hall often in the same building as other local services such as the leisure centre or library and has a core team of officers including a district manager, a community development worker, a case worker and the street scene section. Each partnership currently has a small devolved budget but work is underway to see how these budgets can be increased with a possibility that local commissioning could take place in the future.

In order to reinforce the importance of local neighbourhoods and engage as many people as possible in the Co-operative Council a ‘Love where you Live’ campaign was launched on 14th February 2012, which encouraged individuals to make a pledge to make a difference and also publicising community activities and activists.

Since it is the intention that more decisions will be made at a local level, the old ‘council knows best’ model is no longer appropriate. Under the co-operative approach, local communities will have to be engaged and led, and this places new requirements on councillors. As elected Members, they have indisputably been chosen by their communities as leaders and they are now going to be required to fulfill that role in a proactive rather than a merely reactive manner.

They will be expected to lead district partnerships and feed this experience into the strategic direction of the council. A Local Leadership development programme has been established, and penalties imposed if Members do not attend (i.e. becoming ineligible to vote on their District Partnership Sub-Committee) at least half the sessions, and Members are also expected to publish an annual report of their activities.

A further aspect of community leadership is the council’s decision to become a focus for campaigning to show that it can make a real difference to the lives of residents. Consultation with those residents had shown that they were paying a disproportionate amount of their incomes on bus fares, which were higher in Oldham than in the more prosperous southern parts of the Manchester conurbation, and also paying too much for heating.

The Council consequently fronted two campaigns and succeeded in having bus fares reduced for a trial period with further reductions granted to those passengers who were members of the Credit Union and signing up almost 9000 households to an energy switching campaign which resulted in average savings of £170 per annum (and one individual saving of over £700). These campaigns, therefore, offer a genuine benefit which to some extent will help offset loss of income resulting from changes to Council Tax payment and other benefit changes.

The council will continue to identify issues where the council can use its position to be the focus of campaigns, such as the need to create real employment opportunities though the development of genuine apprenticeships and training, the need to address loan sharks and pay day loan companies by developing alternative means of credit such as the Credit Union, and opportunities for the council to use its purchasing power to reduce the cost of goods for residents.

The philosophy is in place and it is now necessary to convert that into actions on the ground which is, of course, more complicated. We are currently working on developing a common standard of service provision for all neighbourhoods with District Partnerships then free to add to that standard or indeed to do other things as their devolved budget allows. Discussions are still continuing with other service providers to see if service provision can be made by different groupings to maximise outcome by minimising duplication.

A Co-operative Oldham Fund is being developed which residents can bid into to fund schemes or enterprises of value to the town and we are also seeking to develop a ‘divvy’ – a reward scheme for contributions to the community, which hopefully can be used to secure reductions in the costs of goods and services.

It must be recognised that the changes currently being developed are not a panacea and will not negate the serious decisions that will have to be made about the future delivery and provision of services. It is now undoubtedly the case that services will have to be significantly reduced but the intention is that residents will at least have a genuine opportunity to influence what those reductions will be and will have a better understanding of the challenges currently facing local government.

Through this approach, there is the potential to fundamentally change the relationship between citizens and the Council; encouraging and enabling individuals and communities to take more responsibility for themselves and where they live. The proposed changes require significant change for everyone concerned: public staff and possibly most of all Members which cannot be achieved overnight. It is our firm view, however, that there is no alternative, and if we do not attempt to make these changes the most we can do is manage the continuing decline of what was historically a great town and which still has a wealth of untapped potential.

• Cllr Barbara Brownridge is the Councillor for Chadderton North in Oldham and the Cabinet Member for the Co-operative Council.

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