Edinburgh a Cooperative Council

Cllr Joan Griffiths

Cllr Joan Griffiths MBE, City of Edinburgh Council

Councillor Joan Griffiths MBE, Vice Convenor Health Social Care and Housing of Edinburgh Council, shares the speech she gave at the Joint CCIN / Co-operative Party Fringe event held on Saturday 25th February at the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Perth.

A Council that does things ‘with people’ rather than ‘to people’.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and sharing with you Edinburgh’s journey in becoming a Co-operative Capital.

Following the elections in 2012, the Council’s Labour lead Capital Coalition set out a clear vision to become a Cooperative Capital, where public services work better together, and where communities have more influence over the services they use. We pledged to be a Council that does things ‘with people’ rather than ‘to people’.

The council aims were to encourage communities, partners and those using its services to become more involved in how these are planned, managed and delivered, with a particular focus on developing more co-operatives to deliver energy, housing, social care and child care services.

Within the first two years of our Labour Lead Coalition local communities have helped to set up 14 co-ops, some of which have asked for and received Council backing. This was great news for local communities because it showed that people are feeling empowered and want to have a stronger say in the services they access.

We worked on this in a range of ways, such as encouraging specific initiatives in energy, housing, childcare and adult social care.

An example of this can be seen in talks between the Council, Castle Rock Edinvar and students from the University of Edinburgh, which led to the Capital’s first student housing co-operative, which offers quality and affordable accommodation. The students initially approached the Council to talk about their ideas as they knew that we were keen to support this type of structure. This co-operative has gone from strength to strength over the past three years. Members of the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op have recently been in touch to advise us of their interest in another site. This is a wider community initiative which seeks to take forward a co-operative ownership and management proposal.  This proposal would seek to offer a range of affordable housing options, including student accommodation, as well as providing community space and potentially some health related facilities.  These proposals are very ambitious.

We all know that many communities feel disengaged from local democracy at the moment; Councils can seem like distant bureaucracies; and, as organisations, we are struggling to manage significant funding reductions just as local people are putting more and more demand on local services.

If Councils are going to meet this challenge, and if communities are going to thrive, then we all need to start doing things differently. We need to work together, in genuine and equal partnership with local people and organisations, to make the most of the strengths that lie in our communities. Most importantly, we must drive real innovation, with services shaped around the needs of local people.

We have numerous local examples of this taking place, such as the South East of Scotland energy switching project, which was funded by the Energy Savings Trust and helped communities to collectively buy power to get a better deal on energy bills. In Edinburgh, 116 ‘switches’ took place over a period of 2 years, saving participating households an estimated total of £16,000 on their energy bills. Other examples include the Edinburgh Guarantee, the After School Clubs Cooperative Charter, the Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership Commission, the Tenant Participation Strategy and the Homelessness Prevention Implementation Plan.

And within the Council, transparency of decision-making has also improved with the introduction of web-casting, a petitions committee, revised scrutiny – with new governance, risk and best value oversight. The Council’s 2015-16 and 2016-17 budget process has also benefitted, with proposals only finalised once three months of public engagement and consultation were carried out.

Edinburgh Labour’s draft manifesto is currently out for consultation not just to our own membership but Trade Unions and individuals and local organisations.  We are also developing a people’s budget to go along with our manifesto.  We are committed to the cooperative approach.

Cooperatives are simple to set up, easy to join and more effective than working alone. This type of working has help enable Edinburgh to continue to move towards its long-term objective to become a Cooperative Capital. And I firmly believe that the cooperative principles of empowerment, equal partnership, and collective action offer a positive route not simply to survive through tough times, but to enable local communities to thrive, supported by relevant and meaningful local public services.

Indeed, Edinburgh is now seen as a leading centre for cooperative working.  We were the first Scottish Council, closely followed by Glasgow, to join the Cooperative Councils’ Innovation Network. Despite its origins, the CCIN is detached from any party political structures and is registered with the Local Government Association as a Special Interest Group. It aims to enable councils to improve collaboration with citizens and communities, and strengthen cooperative practice.

Councillor  Andrew Burns was the  Chair the Cooperative Councils’ Innovation Network (CCIN) until this month – a collaboration between local authorities across the UK who are committed to finding better ways of working for, and with, local people for the benefit of their local community.

Now more than ever, we see Cooperative Councils being at the forefront of innovative partnership working across sectors, tackling the serious challenges that lie ahead together with local communities.

If this is to work, it can’t be a one-way street: two-way dialogue is a must. We want to encourage communities, partners and those using our services to become more involved in how these are planned, managed and delivered.

The Cooperative Council philosophy underpins the Labour lead Coalition’s approach to work on many levels. It meant looking at new ways of delivering services but it also meant cooperating with other agencies, other cities and, crucially the people of Edinburgh: doing things with them and not doing things to them.

In a time of economic challenge, Edinburgh’s different sectors need to make real cooperative efforts to ensure this city’s high quality of life is maintained and, where possible, enhanced. There are good signs that this cooperative approach is starting to take root.

Administratively, we have sought to make the way the Council does business more accessible to people through webcasting meetings, early publication of our draft budget and developing the policy review and development sub-committees to give stakeholders more of a role in how we develop policy.

We established the first Petitions Committee in Edinburgh to enable local residents to have an additional channel to raise issues of concern, with their elected representatives, and directly with the Council.

It was clear when we formed a Labour-SNP coalition in May 2012 that business as usual wasn’t an option; we had to change the way we did things. That’s why we were committed to becoming a ‘Cooperative Capital’.

There is a new political narrative within the City Chambers here in Edinburgh; the political culture has most definitely changed …

… but, there is undoubtedly a long, long way to go – and continuing to deliver on both the Co-operative Content and on ‘doing politics differently’ are crucial not just for this year, but for every year … and I know that keeping up this level of commitment will be challenging for both Elected Members and Officers.

But I do firmly believe that the co-operative principles of empowerment, equal partnership, and collective action offer a positive route not simply to survive through tough times, but to enable local communities to thrive, supported by relevant and meaningful local public services.

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