I wrote this article for ProgLoc – a new website promoting progressive localism, where it was first published
Mimi Asher is a single mum living on a tough inner-city estate in Brixton. The estate is plagued by violent youth gangs whose activities include drug dealing, street robberies, and violence involving knives and even guns. One gang member was pictured on the front of the Sun newspaper brandishing a sub-machine gun. You can imagine why Mimi was terrified when her young teenage son got involved with one of the gangs.
Mimi decided to take action herself. She got together with other worried parents on the estate, involved the local youth club, the church where she is a pastor, and set up a range of activities to give the young people positive things to do. They set up a football team, cookery lessons, dance classes, prepared healthy meals, and got the young people access to computers and information about training courses. Over three years Mimi and her neighbours helped 60 young people out of gangs and put their lives back on track. The young man pictured with the sub-machine gun is now respected as a mentor helping other young people get out of gangs. All that, and the only public funding they received was a £15,000 grant after they staged a demonstration at a police consultation meeting.
Many councils spend several hundred thousand pounds a year to steer at-risk young people away from gangs, but with success rates barely any different to what Mimi achieved. So why was this community-led initiative so successful? It’s because the community itself understands the social networks, individuals, families and highly localised circumstances far better than any outside professionals could do. They use all this, driven by their urgent concern for their own children, to engage with the young people and divert them away from the ruinous path they are following. It works, delivering better results for the community but at a fraction of the cost of what the public authorities were spending.
The lesson for councils is that closer involvement with the people who live in communities and who rely on public services can deliver better results, even at a time of severe financial constraints. Mimi Asher’s story, and that of many other parents on estates across Lambeth, led us to ask what would happen if we started running our youth services in a new way. What if we were to give people on estates their share of the total budget for diversionary youth activities then give them the professional support and advice they need to analyse their own local needs then bring in the services they need to fix the problem? How much more impact would we get in tackling violent youth crime, and how much more empowered would people feel if we shared power with them in this way? It’s not a wholly new model – organisations like Turning Point are already pioneering it, they call it community-led commissioning. It’s about putting real power in the hands of the people. It’s a model of services co-produced with the community, and it works.
Sharing power with communities can deliver better results in many other services too. The precise model is different from service to service, but the approach – working together, building self-reliance, encouraging innovation – is the same. In Lambeth we are now exploring cooperative housing as a means of helping people on low and fixed incomes to meet their aspiration to own, without running the risks of defaulting on a mortgage. We are looking at micro-mutuals of personalized care budget-holders as a way of improving care services for older and disabled people by putting them back in charge of their own lives. We’re planning community-run children’s centres, neighbourhood micro-plans, community-led clean-up operations, a cooperative model for mental health care that brings together users, carers and professionals as equals. By redesigning all our services in ways that hand power to people we aim to reshape the settlement between the citizen and the state to strengthen our communities and the people who live in them. It will give communities back control over their own destinies with the support they need to make change happen. We call it the cooperative council because it’s about a new partnership where both sides – provider and user – work together.
Lambeth is just one of a number of Labour councils that are developing a new cooperative vision for what Labour councils can become. We believe it better meets the needs of our communities, taking us beyond the Blair-Brown era while reconnecting with traditions that are hot-wired into our party’s psyche. Where the Tories aim to roll back the state, we aim to change the role of the state to help people take back control of their lives. The Big Society, insofar as it means anything, is an attempt to steal progressive language to mask an agenda of cuts and marketisation. We cannot allow the Tories to prostitute our language in this way.
Labour may be out of power nationally, but as this week’s council elections show we are gaining power locally. There is a bold and progressive localism now taking shape in Labour-run town halls. The leadership to make this happen will come from the growing number of Labour councillors who are winning power across the country. We can use the trust voters have placed in us locally to reshape our party’s destiny nationally.