Labour & Co-operative councillor Kevin Peel reports on the North West councillors’ conference this past weekend looking at the Co-operative Councils initiative.

This past weekend I organised a conference in Manchester on Co-operative Councils to look at how local authorities can use co-operative and mutual models, values and principles to deliver better services and put people in control. This isn’t an idea exclusive to the Co-operative Party but what I believe we should all be about in the wider Labour movement.

The event was a huge success. Over 80 Labour / Labour & Co-operative councillors from more than 30 local authorities across the North West and beyond turned up to join in the debate, in addition to a score of Labour and Co-op Party activists from around the region. We had fantastic speeches from leaders of the Labour and Co-operative movements. Lambeth Borough Council Leader Steve Reed talked about putting communities in control of youth services to tackle gang violence. Oldham MBC Leader Jim McMahon described instilling co-operative values in everything the council does and highlighted some of the ways Oldham Council was adapting to co-operative ways of working – including putting the council’s investments and contributions from the Council’s partners into a community dowry to invest in local projects and giving all staff paid leave to carry out voluntary work in the community.

Rochdale Council Leader Colin Lambert reminded us that socialism and co-operation were once interchangeable words and made a passionate case for people across the Labour Party to embrace co-operative values and principles. Neil McInroy of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) emphasised Co-operative Councils as part of a new plurality for service delivery, but with social progressive aims as the key outcome; and Manchester City Council Leader Sir Richard Leese highlighted this plurality by putting forward a different model to the Co-operative Council, that of the ‘Collective Council’. Co-operative Party General Secretary Michael Stephenson put the Co-operative Councils agenda in a political context, attacking the Big Society and reminding us that more democracy (and mutualisation) doesn’t compromise efficiency and performance of services.

In addition to this fantastic line up of speakers, we had experts from the field of co-operatives and mutuals delivering workshops to delve a bit more into the detail of how services might be delivered in co-operative ways. Mervyn Wilson, Principal of the Co-operative College; Dave Boston, Chief Executive of the Schools Co-operative Society; and Phil Arnold of Reddish Vale Technology College – the country’s first co-operative trust school – spoke passionately about co-operative trust schools and academies as a democratic alternative to academy chains. Mick Taylor and Sipi Hameenaho of Mutual Advantage talked about putting social care users in control of the services they receive.

Jonathan Atkinson of the Manchester Carbon Co-op discussed engaging communities in renewables and the Green Deal. Karen Wilkie, Co-operative Party Deputy General Secretary, gave us the who, what, where, why and how of supporting co-op initiatives in your local community. David Rodgers of CDS Co-operatives highlighted co-operative housing as a way to give more control to tenants and residents while Cliff Mills of Mutuo and Noel Chambers, Chair of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, talked about Rochdale’s ambitious mutual housing transfer.

The event was kindly sponsored by Peter Hunt of Public Service Mutuals, the new venture from the Co-operative Group supporting appropriate public services seeking to become mutuals. In his presentation, Peter outlined the ‘Detector’, a tool to be launched in October which will allow councillors and officials to work out whether a mutual is an appropriate way to provide a service in terms of values, outcomes, scale and cost.

My hope is that people left feeling like they had more knowledge about what exactly a co-operative and a mutual is, how these models can be applied in a local authority context and how they might be able to support the development of co-ops and mutuals in their local communities and within their local authorities.

As I said in my opening remarks at the start of the conference, we’re faced with unprecedented cuts to local government funding which risk undoing everything we achieved during 13 years in power. We may not like the cuts and we may rally against them, but they are happening and we have a responsibility to our communities to respond and get the best outcomes possible for them. Councils across the country are being forced to look at different ways of delivering services. This is a challenge but also an opportunity. Co-operative Councils put people in the driving seat, devolving power, funding and decision making to those best placed to deliver positive outcomes – the users of services.

Oldham Council Leader Jim McMahon put it best in his response to one question about how we take this agenda forward in councils that are not controlled by Labour, or Labour controlled councils not signed up to the principles of co-operation and mutualism – you don’t have to be the Council Leader to be a leader. It is the responsibility of all those in the Labour and Co-operative movements who believe in putting people in control to organise and make Co-operative Councils, with services run by the people for the people, a reality up and down the country.

Kev Peel is Labour & Co-operative Councillor for Manchester City Centre and a former member of the Co-operative Party National Youth Committee.