Cllr Jim McMahon: Oldham – a co-operative borough
When Oldham Labour Group signed up to the Cooperative Council pledge we shared the feeling of the other 114 groups at the way in which the Tory-led government was pushing the big society. A society where government rolled back in favour of self help, or ‘sort it yourself’ at least. As a labour group representing a deprived community we knew this model of ‘cuts without consequences’ would be fatal. We had a strong community with community groups and the third sector playing an active part to improve our borough, but we also knew our role as community leaders was to support and provide the infrastructure to make it all come together.
Lambeth have been leading since with some really innovative ideas for a cooperative council, creating a new relationship between local government and citizens.
When the elections returned a Labour administration in May we were keen to progress our pledge as a cooperative council in a way which met the needs of our community. For a cooperative council to work it has to reflect the wishes and aspirations of the community it serves, and by its very nature will look and feel difference across the country – coming together under an ethical framework of cooperative and labour values.
In Oldham we feel that for this to work it needs to be wider than just the council. Oldham as a cooperative borough will see the community central to decision making and tailored service delivery. One of my major frustrations of successive governments is that when they talk about community, they bypassed the people who the community have put forward to represent them – local councillors.
We believe Oldham Council has the potential to be a cooperative in its own right. We have a legal responsibility to act in the public interest, we are not-for-profit and the vast majority of our workforce live in the borough (80%). But for us to be able to call ourselves a cooperative council we need to do a lot more to demonstrate we meet the criteria. Within two weeks of gaining control of Oldham Council we agreed the introduction of a Living Wage for council employees. We are allocating three days paid leave for council staff to work in the local community, sharing their skills and experience to support grass root activity. This could be an accountant helping the local Credit Union with its books, or a gardener helping to maintain an older persons garden.
In Oldham we will be putting forward pilots for community run services and facilities including allotments, community facilities and some grass root delivery of services. In doing so we must ensure that we do not seek to undermine professional posts; a cooperative borough is about coming together for a common endeavour – not one or the other.
We want to give all members of the wider Oldham community an opportunity to take part in our Cooperative Borough. In almost every council in the country there is a mixed economy, it rarely all private, all public or all third sector. For a cooperative community to be inclusive it should allow the whole of the community to play an active part. In Oldham we are introducing a Community Dividend Fund whereby public and private sector partners will contribute, through finance and staff time to benefit the community. We will see major companies paying into the fund and staff volunteering time.
Councillor Jim McMahon is Leader of Oldham Council, one of the first members of the Co-operative Councils Network
This article first appeared on LabourList at http://www.labourlist.org/oldham–a-cooperative-borough-