When is a Co-op not a Co-op? When it’s Cleveland Fire Service

Lacking employee engagement or community support, the plans make a mockery of the term mutual

Anna Turley considers the Coalition’s plans to ‘mutualise’ Cleveland Fire Service and asks whether it truly matches up to co-operative principles.

When is a Co-op not a Co-op?

Answer – when it has no employee engagement, no community support, no democratic accountability and can be sold off to the highest bidder.

This is the worrying fate facing Cleveland Fire Service. The Coalition government, not content with slashing £9m – almost a quarter of the service’s budget – wants to create a burning financial platform to force the authority to spin out our fire services into what it is calling a ‘mutual’.

However, these plans, or at least what we can find out amid the secrecy surrounding them, make a mockery of the term ‘mutual’. They threaten vital emergency services in one of the most heavily industrialised parts of the country, as Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop outlined in an Adjournment Debate he secured on these proposals.

As the former Co-ordinator of the Co-operative Councils Network – a group of councils supporting the development of co-operative local public services, I know more than a little about co-operative and mutual models. Co-operative Councils adhere very strongly to the belief in certain values and principles. These include democratic participation, openness, equality and social responsibility.

The work Co-operative Councils undertakes looks at how local authorities can work more co-operatively with residents – putting them in the driving seat and making sure the needs of residents come first. It was about better co-operation between the state and the citizen, supporting the development of credit unions, ethical charters for local businesses, youth trusts, co-operative housing, schools co-operatives, and community environment co-operatives.

It has never advocated employee ‘spin offs’ and is seen by many as a bulwark against the fragmentation and privatisation of the state. It aims to strengthen its legitimacy by putting more power in the hands of citizens, and keeping it away from the reach of private companies.

By contrast, the government’s ideologically driven plans for public service mutuals are about breaking up, undermining or cutting out the state. They are about allowing a handful of employees to benefit from spinning out public assets, and to create a space where the private sector can tender for the services or even gobble the mutuals up later. Moreover, it is simply not appropriate, indeed is downright dangerous, to trial new approaches in areas like the fire service.

In Cleveland, there is no support from employees. In fact, the Fire Brigade Union is vehemently opposed. There has been no community consultation, and Freedom Of Information requests to obtain more information have been refused. Major legislative changes were attempted through the back door via the ‘Regulatory Reform Committee’ so they would not be debated on the floor of the House of Commons. There is no information on how the accountability to the public will be ensured, what the implications will be for employees, or who will be responsible for risk in a service which is about life and death.

There is nothing ‘mutual’ or ‘co-operative’ about these proposals. They are simply a fig-leaf for a Tory privatisation agenda, and I hope they never see the light of day.

Anna Turley is the Labour and Co-operative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Redcar and former Co-ordinator of the Co-operative Councils Network.