The Cooperative Council: Lambeth’s cooperative future

Lambeth’s Labour Council has announced plans to become the country’s first cooperative council.  We want to hand more power to citizens, service users and communities over the services they use.  That will require a new and different partnership between the council and our communities so power is shared more equally, and we will be guided by the cooperative values of fairness, accountability and responsibility

Britain’s existing model of public services was established in the post-war period and, despite some changes, has remained broadly intact ever since.  That model of uniform state provision has delivered huge benefits but society today is very different from the 1940s.  We are more ethnically diverse, more globalised, we live longer, we have different aspirations, we are used to exercising more choice and control over our lives.   The centralised state model has some negative impacts too, creating welfare dependency that has stifled some people’s ambition and aspiration – sometimes across generations.  The cooperative approach gives us an opportunity to rethink the settlement between the citizen and the state, and the relationship between public services and the people who use them, so we can shape the kind of community we want to become

Public services are now under political attack from a Tory-led Government that has the market as its guiding ideological principle.  They want to marketise public services, privatising where possible then offloading unprofitable services onto communities.  That is what the Big Society is all about – it’s the other side of the coin to the Small State which is what Tory governments have always been about.  Our cooperative model is profoundly different.  The Tories want to roll back the state, we want to change the role of the state.  For Labour, this is about handing power and control to citizens and communities as a means of improving, democratising and protecting public services.    

How will it work in Lambeth?

Our approach to cooperation sees public services and their users working together more closely than ever before.  The approach differs from service to service and even place to place, but it always involves giving more power to citizens so there is a more equal partnership

Here are some examples of how the cooperative approach is already working in Lambeth across a range of very different services:

  • Elmgreen School

Elmgreen is the country’s first and only Parent Promoted Secondary School.  It was set up as a local authority school by a partnership between the council and local parents who established a Parent Promoter Foundation that oversaw the consultation for the new school, set up the Governing Body, helped appoint the head teacher, and agreed the design and ethos for the new school. It is now one of the most successful schools in the borough.

  • Adult care services

Lambeth is pioneering personalised care budgets, where the care user is supported to choose what services they want to receive.  Users often choose very different services so those the council was providing.  By forming micro-mutuals, care users can pool their budgets and exercise greater influence over the services they want to use – getting better services and, often, at lower cost.

  • Violent youth crime

The X-it Programme is a youth mentoring programme that originally operated on the Moorlands Estate in Brixton.  It worked by training young people on the estate to mentor younger people involved in gangs and criminal activities and divert them into positive activities instead.  Over 7 out of 10 young people on the programme did not re-offend – the highest success rate of any programme of its kind in the country.

  • Cooperative housing

There are many forms of cooperative housing, from tenant management to shared ownership.  Lambeth has more tenant-managed estates than any other borough and Coin Street, on the South Bank, is a well known shared ownership housing co-op.  Shared ownership give people on lower incomes or first-time buyers the chance to own a share in their home without taking out unaffordable mortgages.  If someone’s income collapses, they can simply reduce their equity purchase without losing what they’ve already bought and without the risk of losing their home. 

  • Weir Link Children’s Centre

The council handed a disused laundry on the Weir Estate, Balham, to residents who rebuilt it as a community centre and now run a children’s centre there.  The centre is managed by a board of local residents who make sure the services delivered meet the needs of the local community.

  • Community Freshview

Lambeth’s innovative Community Freshview scheme sees the council and local residents working together to clean up derelict land and turn it into community space – such as play areas, vegetable gardens or simply open space.  This popular scheme lowers costs, provides sustainable solutions, and promotes leadership within the local community. 

Lambeth’s Cooperative Council Commission

Lambeth’s Cooperative Council Commission will publish its report in December, and will propose a range of services that can be run along cooperative lines.  We will learn from these pilots what works and what doesn’t and will then extend the model to other services.  By using this approach, we will move incrementally towards becoming a truly cooperative council

There are a number of questions we are trying to answer both through the commission and through the pilots once they start in the new year.  These questions include:

  • What support do communities need to help run services?
  • What incentives do individuals expect to participate and how do we make sure participation is open to everyone?
  • What improvements in value will the approach deliver – in financial and social terms?
  • Does the approach deliver better quality, more responsive services?
  • How do we ensure accountability? 
  • How do we make sure services remain open to all who need to use them?
  • How will the council change its own culture to support cooperative working?
  • What reserve powers do we need in case things go wrong? 


What kind of services might be run along cooperative lines?

The cooperative approach is very flexible so it can be applied to a very wide range of services.  Examples elsewhere in the country and in other countries include:

  • Cooperative or shared equity housing
  • Libraries
  • Parks
  • Youth clubs and services
  • Health and care services
  • Community newspapers
  • Foster carers
  • Credit unions
  • Community Land Trusts
  • Community recycling and re-use schemes
  • Community Trust Schools
  • Sustainable living projects
  • Sports clubs
  • Industrial co-ops


In summary

Lambeth is already a very cooperative borough.  Our communities are very engaged and we have a lively and flourishing voluntary and community sector.  The cooperative council aims to harness that energy and enthusiasm to help reshape and improve public services, even in a time of financial cut-backs.  This is not about people volunteering in their spare time, this is about citizens and services users actively participating in how local public services are run.  Our approach aims to turn citizens from passive users into active shapers of services.  That can only work if we genuinely transfer power from the state to citizens.  In many ways, that is the most exciting part of all, because what is progressive politics about if not ‘power to the people’? 

You can read how the Guardian reported this story by clicking on the links below
Britain’s first ‘John Lewis’ council
Interview with Steve Reed
Community-led sports hub at Old Lilian Baylis School site


About Steve Reed MP

I'm Labour Member of Parliament for Croydon North after being elected in a by-election in November 2012. Before that I was Leader of Lambeth Council since 2006, and was a councillor for Brixton Hill from 1998 to 2012.
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