To me, a co-operative council is a system that reflects the honest truth about politics locally, and indeed nationally; the council does not have all the answers. And if we want to help the maximum number of people, in a time of dwindling resources, the only way forward is together.
The days in which Town Hall chiefs could make a decision behind closed doors, march in with a plan, spend some money and move on are long since gone. They should never have been here.
What we need now are councils that listen and make decisions with, not for, residents. If we are to get through austerity we need to be a co-operative city that leaves no one behind.
We saw this when we faced the threat of city-wide library closures. Our options could quite simply have been shut down buildings or reduce opening hours, but it was clear from the start that support from within our communities meant that in some places the best way to secure a service was the co-operative model. The benefits of strong locally-backed libraries are there for all to enjoy.
And that’s the key to the co-operative model; when done right the benefits are felt far and wide.
Look no further for proof of that than Newcastle’s response to welfare reform. The last seven years have had an enormous impact on our city. We estimate that by 2022 Newcastle will be losing £129m annually as a result of cuts to support for those in need. This at the same time as the council faces around £283m of Government-ordered budget cuts.
Our response to this has been the Active Inclusion Newcastle partnership. With unemployment, welfare cuts and the threat of homelessness, there is no benefit to the council working alone, just doing its bit while others look after their area. We instead maximise our impact working together.
A co-operative council takes what works and builds on it. In Newcastle Council’s case this was based on high levels of homelessness prevention, low evictions from council housing, no use of bed and breakfast accommodation since 2006 and high levels of benefit take-up facilitated by specialist advice.
Others have more to add, so with the care sector, housing providers, DWP and voluntary groups, we got together and looked at how we make the prevention of financial exclusion and homelessness everyone’s business.
The results have been impressive and in some cases genuinely life changing. In 2016-17 there were 72,600 visits to our financial inclusion and homelessness prevention website pages, 3,216 subscribers to our Active Inclusion Newcastle weekly information updates, training was delivered to 595 multi-agency staff and volunteers, and there were 8,792 credit union members.
This helped us to better target specialist benefit, debt and housing advice, which helped 29,036 residents that year. This led to 4,164 cases of homelessness prevention, 18,323 residents being helped to secure £30m in benefits and 4,782 residents receiving debt advice.
No one organisation can have that impact on so many lives. It takes the volunteer on the ground and the leadership fighting welfare changes and the adviser looking for an emergency solution and the support staff setting up a debt management plan and the team turning JobCentre appointments in to real opportunity and so much more.
But most of all, it takes a city of residents committed to helping each other because we know we are stronger when we refuse to abandon our neighbours or our values. The only way forward is together.
Councillor Nick Forbes
Leader, Newcastle City Council