Co-op councils meet to discuss ways to embed their values into communities

‘We need politics that is more open, more accountable and directly responsive to the people that we serve’

The Co-op Councils Innovation Network met at Rochdale Town Hall yesterday for its annual conference, where it discussed ways to build co-operative places.

Keynote speakers and workshop facilitators stressed the need to embed co-op values in the network’s activities, with Lord Kennedy, Labour/Co-op peer and shadow spokesperson on communities and local government, saying it offered “ideas and innovations for the challenges ahead” while the country endures “very strange, very difficult times”.

CCIN – a network of councils working together to develop co-operative, people-led approaches to local government – includes Preston City Council, which has gained widespread attention for developing a model of community wealth building, alongside local anchor institutions such as the police force, NHS and University of Central Lancashire.

Preston’s council leader Cllr Matthew Brown told delegates that, in the face of growing inequalities since the 2008 banking crash and subsequent imposition of national austerity measures, they offer “a new economic movement – we’ve all got a responsibility to make things happen”.

“Austerity threatens democracy,” he said. “When you stand for election as a Labour/Co-op councillor you need money to do things; Tory cuts have narrowed our ability to do things.”

Preston’s response was to encourage anchor institutions to increase local procurement spending, with local businesses involved in construction, printing and other sectors; in one year this returned £75m to the city.

“That’s money that doesn’t go to a firm in London or to business that sticks it in a tax haven,” he said.

Preston is also looking at using pension funds to invest in local projects like affordable housing, and is establishing a regional mutual and co-operative bank with local authorities in Liverpool and Wirral. This will work with small local businesses who are struggling to get finance from large banks, said Cllr Brown. 

Another strand is the creation of more co-ops and worker-owned businesses, emulating the Mondragon model in Spain. “If you think there isn’t an alternative to neoliberalism, there is one,” he said. “Life expectancy in areas where Mondragon operates is two or three years longer than areas where it does not.”

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Another council in the network, Stevenage, is led by Cllr Sharon Taylor, chair of the CCIN. She said co-operation was embedded in the history of Stevenage, going back to its development as the UK’s first postwar new town in 1946, and measures by the council, trade unions and local voluntary organisations to rebuild the local economy during the 1980s recession.

She said it was unacceptable the area still has “different life expectancies in different areas” but “co-operative solutions are all around us”. The authority is now working with the University of Hertfordshire and the Hertfordshire Growth Board on a community wealth building programme.

Community engagement is also crucial, she said, giving the example of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic, which the council organised in a local park so that it could hear from residents, such as single parents, who struggled to attend formal evening meetings. The event brought 700 people who joined a planning exercise – and out of the project came “a sustainable and successful community centre”.

Another form of community collaboration was put forward by Cllr Peter Bradbury from Cardiff Council, who said his city’s thriving live music scene had come under threat from residential developments, which led to new householders complaining about noise from venues.

Related: Interview with Manchester mayor Andy Burnham on devolution, climate change and co-ops

The council carried out grassroots work with musicians, promoters and venues to develop a music strategy and has now established a music board which will look at planning issues and look after venues.

The afternoon plenary looked at efforts to create co-operative places, and heard from Tameside and Oldham councils, along with Burntwood parish council, about their work to engage with residents on planning and service delivery, to protect community assets and build wealth.

Tony Armstrong, from community support organisation Locality, which is working with the Co-op Group on its programme to save threatened community spaces, said: “We believe every community has assets, every community is powerful. 

“But there is a crisis around spaces. Sometimes this means empty spaces in a community; sometimes it’s a lack of any kind of space or place … We need to work out how to support a better system of procurement.”

In his keynote speech, Steve Reed MP – honorary president of the CCIN and shadow minister for digital, culture, media & sport, said the network’s ideas had drawn interest from Australia, Kenya, Canada, Falkland Islands – which even join the network.

“Central to the co-op vision is the concept of sharing power,” he said. “Co-operators seek to open up power and use it for the common good.”

Pointing to the death of high streets, he warned: “Too many people lack the power to make changes in own lives and communities.

“We’ve seen inequality and division; Brexit crystallised the divide. But leaving the EU won’t solve our problems because the EU didn’t cause them.”

He added: “Power is a curious thing – it’s not static; you can’t count it. People can withdraw their consent. A revolution is the rapid transfer of power from people who have it to people who don’t. We must be the peaceful revolutionaries seeking to restore power to the people.”

Mr Reed said the economy has grown by 15-20% since the economic crash of 2008 but wages and living standards have fallen. “Return to capital has grown, while return to labour has declined. Working people have lost their power to demand a better return.”

He said the climate crisis was “another inequality of power”, hitting the poorest the hardest – whether it be people in Bangladesh displaced by floods or in Africa affected by drought. “At home the Extinction Rebellion is being led by schoolchildren, the ones with the least power.”

And he warned that the digital revolution threatened democracy itself, as a conduit for online extremism and by giving governments and business “new ways to manipulate us” through big data.

“Too often decisions are taken from the top down. We take decisions on council housing or care without consulting tenants or service users … this risks getting things wrong and stifling the insight and innovation of people.

“Rebalancing power is an essential part of putting things right. Don’t abandon democracy, double down on it; answers should come not from the top but from the bottom … We can no longer do analogue politics in a digital age.”

He added: “Our country is in crisis because we are in transition; old politics can deal with the crisis we face. We need politics that is more open, more accountable and directly responsive to the people that we serve.

“Politics is in a dark place but there is light in the work that you are doing.”