Co-operative values are shaping a new approach to local government

As the Co-operative Party tries to gain back some territory lost in the general election, co-operative local councils have an important role to play in the process. “We are in...

As the Co-operative Party tries to gain back some territory lost in the general election, co-operative local councils have an important role to play in the process. “We are in power right across the country in local government where we have a strong party presence,” said Steve Reed, Labour and Co-operative MP for Croydon North. Mr Reed was speaking at the Co-operative Party’s annual conference in London where he made the case for using co-operative values to find new ways to deliver public services. He says this could help deliver better outcomes and make communities more resilient, even on reduced budgets.

How do we equip communities to take advantage of that? A lot of answers are to be found in communities themselves. We’re finding ways to treat people as opportunities, not problems.” Not far from his Lambeth constituency, a youth co-operative is helping tackle youth crime. Young Lambeth Co-op is a co-operative that brings together young people, community members and Lambeth Council to change the way services for young people are chosen and run. Having the support of the community itself is crucial to the success of any community project, said Mr Reed.

“The biggest voice is given to people directly affected by violence,” he added. “It’s dramatically more successful than what was going on before; instead of them feeling they are the victim of what was happening they have a genuine sense of ownership of resources required to tackle the problem.

“We are not recognising anywhere near enough the positive contribution our councils are making.”

Chris Herries, Labour and Co-operative councillor for Norwich, says her council is exploring how to use co-operative principles in housing. But increasing awareness of co-operatives among councillors from other parties remains a challenge. “It is down to us to make sure that we raise people’s knowledge,” she said.

Chris Penberthy, Plymouth City Council’s cabinet member for co-operatives, housing and community safety is vice chair of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network (CCIN), a Local Government Association special interest group.

“We might be perceived to be a million miles from Westminster, but we’re delivering – not just talking about – co-operation,” he told the conference.

There are currently 23 co-operative councils in England, Scotland and Wales that are part of the network. “Each is committed to giving our local residents a greater say in shaping the place they live in and the services they use. Doing with and not doing to is central to our approach,” he explained. Examples include Glasgow, where the council is working with the Co-operative College on educating its staff team in the co-operative approach.

In Plymouth the council has been supporting the development of credit unions, which resulted in an increase in membership by a third in the past 18 months. The council has also facilitated the development of Plymouth Energy Community and invested in its growth with a match funding grant and loan contribution of over £1.5m, with a potential further £3.75m under negotiation. Along with a group of 67 local schools, the council has helped set up CaterED, a city-wide award winning school meals co-operative.

“A number of CCIN members are in minority control or are coalitions – elections in May could make a difference,” added Mr Penberthy. “In Plymouth, in 9 months’ time the work we’ve been doing could come to an end. We cannot, and we must not, let this happen. The time for co-operative government is now – let’s campaign together to make it so.”

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