More than 80,000 children in England are in care. These children often come into the care of the state having suffered some of the most traumatic and painful experiences and so they need the care system to wrap itself around them and help them build or rebuild loving relationships and the foundations for a good life. How we care for these children is nothing short of a reflection of our values as a country. When we get it right, children’s social care allows children and families to flourish – it can be a reflection of England at its best.

Earlier this year I concluded a major government commissioned review [LINK] into the care system that identified deep problems. This independent review started by listening to thousands of children, care experienced people, families and professionals so that we could find answers to give children’s social care a radical reset. A co-operative model sits at the centre of this reset.

How we find, match, build and run foster homes and residential care for children in care is broken. This is not just the finding of the review I led. The Competition and Markets Authority looked at this area and identified major problems too [LINK]. Profiteering, weak oversight and poor planning by councils. The verdict on the system is damning.

Bold action is needed so that when children are in care, the home and relationships we put around them provides safety, stability and love so that they can find their place in the world, thrive, and realise their ambitions. Care needs to be tailored for teenagers (the fastest growing group entering care), offer more options for those who can safely lives with their families some of the time, and be much better at keeping children close to their community, school, friends and brothers and sisters. Delivering this level of change in an already overwhelmed system will require excellent planning, long term investment in new care, and dedicated leadership. This transformation will be best delivered through new regional co-operatives rather than individual councils.

These new Regional Care Co-operatives (RCCs) would consolidate a number of functions currently performed at smaller scale by local authorities. These include planning for the future needs of children in care in a region and then creating new public sector fostering, residential and secure care services. It would also include commissioning not-for-profit and private sector provided care for children as necessary, where the RCC chooses to do so. By doing this, RCCs would have the scale to invest in new care for the future needs of children and they could build a service with the capability needed to provide foster and residential care. Because they would meet needs in a planned way and have the weight of many members (councils in this case) they would also set us on a path to move away from a care system based on profit.

There are obvious benefits to using a co-operative model to solving this problem. The co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity apply directly to how these RCCs would be run. These co-operatives would have the powers to be responsible – and more clearly accountable – for improving care in their area and so blame would be less easily passed to a nebulous ‘system’. The RCC would have a direct link back to the group of councils who govern and fund the body, and so a democratic link would be retained. These bodies would need to involve those with lived experience throughout and they would need to be ambitious in providing care that can tackle the disadvantage faced by the care experienced community.

Rolling out Regional Care Cooperatives as the new way of creating foster and residential care would mean that more than £5bn per year of spending would be going through organisations with cooperative principles at their core. If it was successful it could prove to be a model for adult social care or other areas of the public sector where profiteering has grown and public services have struggled to respond. They could mark the next chapter in the devolution of powers to city regions and combined authorities.

180 years ago, pioneers in Rochdale banded together to improve the quality of life for workers in the industrial revolution. We need that same pioneering spirit now to take back control of one of the most important responsibilities the state has – finding loving homes for children in care. Co-operative councillors should be at the forefront of making this change happen.

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