Lambeth Council today publishes details of how it will become Britain’s first cooperative council. So why are we doing it, what difference will people see, and are there wider lessons for Labour local government?
Public services in Britain have reached a tipping point. They are under attack from a right-wing Government that wants to marketise services, and they are trying to do that while using the language of empowerment to mask what they are up to. But public services are also under threat from falling public confidence which, if it is not addressed, will create the space the right needs to impose large-scale privatisation. Falling confidence in services as different as the health service and the police, despite massive investment in recent years, arises from a sense of disempowerment and remoteness people feel in the face of top-down public services that were shaped immediately after the Second World War. Today the world has moved on, and to give public services a sustainable future we need to combat that loss of confidence by handing more power to individuals and communities as part of a rebalanced settlement between the citizen and the state. In handing more power to the people we can expect public services to change dramatically as they shift to meet people’s real needs.
That’s the theory, and we explored it in detail through Lambeth’s Cooperative Council Commission. The Commission consulted with over 3,000 Lambeth residents and heard from over 50 oganisations nationally that have experience in delivering services in ways that put the users rather than the providers in control. But people want to know what difference they will see, so here is some of what we plan to do.
Youth services will be run by the community using a model called ‘community-led commissioning’. That involves the council supporting communities to decide what kind of youth services will best meet their needs, then helping them buy the appropriate services from whoever is best able to provide them. Sometimes that will mean community involvement in delivering the services – such as running groups or activities. Sometimes the services will be delivered by qualified professionals or voluntary organisations, depending on the needs the community identifies.
Adults receiving care services will have more control of their own budgets, and some buildings – such as Lambeth’s Disability Resource Centre – will be transferred to mutual ownership including service users. That means people who are supported by services including home helps, respite care, day centres or support for disabled people to live independently at home, will decide what help they need and where they get it from using their own personalised care budget. They will be offered professional guidance to take their decisions, but the key is that the people using the services will be in control of their own lives instead of finding themselves under the control of others.
Lambeth will encourage local schools to become cooperative trusts, forming strong bonds with the local community and other schools in the area. This gives the local community a bigger say over how the school is run, and it creates communities of schools that can share or pool resources so children at each school benefit.
We are exploring putting all our libraries into a trust owned and run by the local community. This model works well in the borough of Queens, New York, where the foundation library attracts outside investment and provides services that better meet the needs of local people. Any libraries that have to close because of Government funding cuts will be offered to the community as a standalone mutual or trust.
There are a range of different models for cooperative housing, which makes up a tiny fraction of the housing market in the UK compared with other countries including Germany, Sweden and Canada. The options range from tenant-managed estates where ownership remains with the council, through to shared equity models where the housing is owned by a company in which every resident owns a share. This model allows mixed-income communities to develop where people on lower incomes can own shares in their own home without running the risk of defaulting on a mortgage if their income suddenly collapses as, in that case, they can simply reduce their monthly equity purchase rather than lose their home. Lambeth’s estates will be able to choose which housing model best suits them.
Local communities will be encouraged to develop neighbourhood micro-plans to help take decisions over how their share of the council’s overall budget is spent in their area. The Council will make sure that all parts of local communities are listened to so the plan isn’t run in the interests of only one part of the community.
Residents will be encouraged to take part in shaping or running local services through a Lambeth Cooperative Incentive Scheme. This will take the form of credits that people can use for discounts in local shops, for local leisure or sports facilities, or as a council-tax discount. To make sure the money is spent locally, any credits will be awarded in a new local electronic currency, building on the success of the Brixton Pound that already operates in the borough and is the UK’s only local currency in an urban area.
What’s clear from this small sample of services is that the model operates quite differently in different services but the principles of empowerment and cooperation remain the same. Local communities and the people who use services will be in the driving seat instead of the people who deliver those services. In this way services will become more accountable to local people, and more responsive to local need. By allowing people to exercise more choice we expect both better services and higher levels of confidence in those services. This transformation offers a radical new vision of what Labour local government can become by supporting the development of cooperative communities.
There are similarities with some of the rhetoric of the Big Society. That is inevitable because the Tories are deliberately stealing Labour’s language to mask their cuts agenda. It is imperative that Labour reclaims that language and shows what empowerment really means. A quick look at Tory councils like Barnet or Suffolk shows that while they talk about empowerment all they’re really doing is privatising services and dumping unprofitable services on communities ill-equipped to manage them. The Tories want to roll back the state, while Labour’s task is to change the role of the state by putting it under the control of local people. That is true empowerment, it offers us the chance to rebuild confidence in public services while making a reality of that long-held ambition of progressive politics: power to the people.