Meet … Cllr Louise Gittins, chair of the Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network

‘We realised the power of community action and engagement and the difference the co-operative way makes to how we deliver services’

Cllr Gittins became leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council in 2019, and says that from the start, she has embedded co-operative values and principles into her work. One of her first objectives was for the council to become a Co-operative Council and join the Cooperative Councils’ Innovation Network, of which she was recently elected chair.

How did you first get involved in local government?

I have been an active member of the Labour Party since 1999 and always helped out in local and national elections. In 2011 I was the candidate in a ward where I live, for the newly formed Cheshire West and Chester Council. I wasn’t expected to win, but I did and made it my pledge to work hard for and with my local community. 

The Labour group was in opposition until the 2015 all out elections. When we took control of the council, I was deputy leader until the 2019 elections and became leader when Samantha Dixon stood down as leader after the elections (Sam is now the new MP for Chester City Constituency). As well as chairing the CCIN, I am chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) Children and Young People’s board, Cheshire and Merseyside Health Care partnership and vice chair of transport for the north. I am passionate about improving health inequalities and the subsequent role of local government, whilst recognising that co-operation, collaboration, and partnership working is how we get things done.

How did you first hear about co-ops?

I was always aware of the Co-operative Party and the model of co-operatives but then learnt about co-operative councils during an inspirational presentation at an LGA conference in 2015. The presentation highlighted the benefits and gave examples of co-operative working underpinned by values and principles. 

What do you think the connection is between the two?

In 2019 I became leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council: one of my first objectives was for the council to join CCIN and become a co-operative council. The values of CCIN closely aligned to both our values as a council and my own personal mission to build a stronger, fairer, greener, future, for and with our communities. 

At CCIN we acknowledge that councils are not themselves registered co-operatives, however we and our members have developed principles that have grown from those of the International Cooperative Alliance and are relevant to us in local government. The CCIN has developed 10 icons to represent these principles and use them throughout our website and reports to show how co-operative councils are putting our co-operative principles into practice, highlighting the co-op difference in the work we are doing.

Embedding co-operative values and principles into our work in Cheshire West has enabled us to make great strides towards empowering our communities, strengthening partnerships and growing our local economy. Through working with the network we realised the power of community action and engagement and the difference the co-operative way makes to how we deliver services. Taking part in and leading on policy labs (Understanding the Digital Divide), sharing good practice case studies, and signing up to the Fair Tax Charter are some of the ways we have demonstrated our commitment. 

Related: More Meet … interviews with co-operators around the world

What is the role of CCIN in 2023?

In 2023 we want to continue to grow our network and welcome new members. We will be encouraging councils and other organisations to join the CCIN to be part of a growing and influential network committed to developing a new relationship with citizens. There is increasing interest, across the political spectrum, in how to share power and responsibility with citizens, support the development of community and civic life and find more cost-effective ways to create successful and resilient communities. Membership is open to all councils, opposition groups, and businesses wishing to show their support and engage in the processes of developing innovative co-operative councils. Individuals and organisations can also join as supporters.

This year we will update and refresh our Strategy and Action Plan 2021-2023, this has focused on four themes: 

Theme 1: Better effectiveness in information sharing, accessible information, sharing best practice and encouraging more co-production. 

Theme 2: Developing a range of networks to increase engagement. 

Theme 3: Training and support to better promote values and principles across organisations and networks. 

Theme 4: National Influence and lobbying, growing the network and events.

What do you hope to achieve as the chair?

As chair of the CCIN I will bring passion and enthusiasm and a drive to spread the co-operative word and increase our network across the country. I am committed to our role as a non party-political hub for co-operative policy development and advocacy. As chair I will ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and that all members, associates, and affiliates from across the network, can participate in a meaningful co-operative way, share good practice, and develop innovative ideas. 

What are the organisation’s biggest challenges this year?

Today, in the face of the cost of living crisis, the climate emergency and the financial challenges facing the public sector, our collective work is crucial and together we need to continue reclaiming the traditions of community action, community engagement, and civic empowerment that can transform communities. I will ensure this work progresses and develops across our network and actions are delivered at pace. 

What are the greatest opportunities?

To overcome the challenges society is facing we do have an opportunity to look at these from a different perspective and our collective policy lab reports will help shape how services can be delivered. In 2022 we published a number of reports including Cooperative Difference in Care, Understanding the Digital Divide and Cooperative Approaches to Reaching Net Zero. In 2023 we will work together as a network and focus on three new policy labs of co-operative difference and will continue to share our case studies of good practice (to date 420 have been shared).