Co-operative Principles – Transforming the way Lambeth Council is run

Steve Reed

Labour and Co-operative MP for Croydon North and Shadow Minister for Local Government


Every week brings news of further damaging cuts as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition gets to work making the poorest in our society pay the cost of the global banking crisis.  For the coalition, localism means little more than trying to localise the blame for their decision to make the cuts faster and deeper than is necessary or wise.  The threat to our communities places a responsibility on Labour councils to try and strengthen our community’s resilience to withstand the damaging cuts. While we must campaign against unfair cuts, we must also show that we are able to turn our values into new ideas that offer the hope of a fairer future.

In Lambeth, we’re pursuing the idea of reshaping public services along cooperative lines.  We want to make Lambeth Britain’s first-ever truly cooperative council. The idea comes from some major successes we’ve seen in the four years since Labour won back Lambeth from a Lib Dem–Conservative coalition, and it builds on the experience of Labour councils up and down the country that use cooperative models to run services as varied as leisure centres, housing, and credit unions.

A peer mentoring programme on a tough estate with high levels of gang activity in Brixton had dramatic success in preventing youth offending. The project delivered a startling 72% success rate at preventing reoffending by matching younger people who were starting to offend with ex-offenders a few years older who steered them away from offending and onto a range of positive activities instead. The project worked because it was delivered by young people who had greater understanding, reach and credibility with younger offenders from the same background.

We helped parents set up a foundation that oversaw the opening of the Elmgreen School in West Norwood as Britain’s first, and so far only, parent promoted secondary school. The new school is part of the local authority family but became one of the most popular schools in the borough before it had even opened because of the huge credibility the involvement of local parents brought.

Lambeth is home to the Coin Street housing cooperative on the South Bank just behind the National Theatre. Cooperative housing offers a range of benefits, including more control for the people who live there, the opportunity for people on low or fixed incomes to meet their aspiration to own but without the risks of being sucked into sub-prime lending that can lead to repossession or, on a far wider scale, threaten the banking system.

Our Community Freshview programme brings together neighbours to clear up patches of derelict land that blight their community. Using tools provided by the council, they turn overgrown dumps into community gardens or play areas over which the community feels real ownership. A further benefit is the emergence of new community groups and community leaders who then move on to tackle other issues of concern to local people.

While in each service area the delivery model differs, there is a common approach that brings them all together. That approach is about stronger cooperation between the council and the community that sees more power in the hands of citizens. Lambeth has now set up a commission to explore just how far we can go in extending this cooperative approach across other services. We will learn as we go along, setting up pilots to answer some of the questions we have about our approach. We want to know what support the community needs to get more involved, what powers we need in reserve if things go wrong, how we prevent capture by one sector of the community to the exclusion of others, and how we maintain democratic accountability. We want to explore how cooperation offers better value for money and higher quality services, and we want to find out how to unleash the creativity and innovation that lies hidden away in our community.

Lambeth’s new approach is not about de-professionalising services, it’s about giving citizens and service users more control over the services they use. We want to see how we can apply the model in services as diverse as housing, communications, youth activities, play, and home care. We want to find out by piloting the model how we can strengthen our communities by encouraging the growth of new approaches, new leaders, and new ways of running services that minimise the pain of the Tory-Lib Dem spending cuts while strengthening our communities at the same time. Lambeth’s cooperative commission will consult with local people before proposing which services we can launch as new pilots later this year.

Cooperation and mutuality have always been part of the Labour movement. These are values that helped found our party and the trade unions. Now, as we face the most damaging cuts in public services for a generation, we are looking to those Labour values to steer us through. In every crisis comes an opportunity, and the chance we now face is to rethink the nature of public services to find a new settlement that hands more power and control to the ordinary people Labour has always sought to represent.

This article originally appeared on LabourList
http://www.labourlist.org/co-operative-principles–transforming-the-way-lambeth-is-run