I was talking earlier this week with the leader of a large local authority who, like his colleagues in some other Labour-controlled cities, has declared his council to be a ‘cooperative’ one.
He shared with me a number of recent things his administration has been doing to try to live up to its pledge to be genuinely cooperative (or, as the slogan puts it, a ‘Brilliant Co-operative Council’). We talked of his desire to encourage what he called “active citizenry”, whether in the field of education (one community college is a cooperative trust, for example), through the city’s three community-led development trusts, or through the proposal to pass council-run open spaces into a new trust, an idea currently under consideration.
This is such a difficult time to be a local authority councillor, let alone the leader of a major city trying against all the odds to maintain services whilst having to make swingeing cuts, that I can only admire his tenacity. I last wrote about ‘Co-operative Councils’ in March in The Guardian (you’ll find a link on my website), since when the twenty or so councils involved have formed themselves into the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network. The Network offers the following informal manifesto for its work: “We believe that the unprecedented challenges facing the public sector and local communities mean that traditional models of top down governance and service delivery are no longer fit for purpose. We agree that we urgently need to create a new approach, and that the founding traditions of the co-operative movement – collective action and co-operation, empowerment and enterprise – offer a foundation for fresh and innovative solutions to help tackle the challenges of today in genuine collaboration with communities.”
It’s difficult to disagree with that, and I’m all for an end to top-downism and for genuine partnership between councils and their citizens. Admittedly there can be problems in the implementation: there have already been probing questions asked of the original ‘cooperative council’, Lambeth, in the way it has recently evicted members of short-life housing coops in the borough, an issue reported widely and covered again in The Guardian earlier this week.
More substantively, I do have a worry over the idea that local authorities can genuinely claim the term ‘cooperative’. The core principle of cooperation is that people voluntarily choose to come together as members of a cooperative – membership is not something which can be imposed on them from on high. Local authorities can be (and should be) lots of things: democratic, accountable, responsive, accessible, good at cooperating. I’m just not convinced they can be Cooperatives.