Abigail Melville: What is distinctive about cooperative councils?

AbigailBy Abigail Melville
Associate, the RSA.

When I was a young Labour Party policy officer I was very taken with the idea of “community planning” which came from New Zealand. This was the idea that the community works together to decide priorities that everyone works towards. I felt proud that I got it mentioned in Labour’s policies for the 1997 election.

Elected as a councillor in Stockwell I tried to put my ideas into practice and to map the neighbourhood I represented and what was in it. Unfortunately policy for local government became dominated by best value, business transformation and strategic partnerships. (Didn’t we love a private sector model in those days?) So, although we did get the general duty of wellbeing, ideas about working with communities and mapping resources from the bottom up got squeezed out.

Imagine my delight when, many years later (after spells as an IDeA manager, mother, public affairs consultant, artist and teacher) I found myself at the RSA working with a group of councils on a mission to put citizens at the heart of what they do. Interestingly, the burning platform of budget cuts and rising demand seems to have created an imperative to ask what communities can do for themselves. Hallelujah.

The LGA mainstream is moving towards joining things up and looking at prevention and demand management to reduce costs. But this will not work unless we fundamentally re-design the way the local state works with communities.

So what are Cooperative Councils, I asked, and what are we trying to do? How are they different from “good councils”. I found great energy in the network and a real appetite to answer this question together (we love to co-produce, of course). So I spent last Wednesday in Oldham with a small group of dynamic policy leaders to thrash out what a Cooperative Council is. Some great messages came out strong and clear.

First, our vision it is not for a Cooperative Council but for a cooperative place, which impacts on the people in that place. The council needs to change the way it works to influence how the place works. So we are articulating our “theory of change” – how what the council does has impact on the change we are trying to achieve over time.

Second, we have some crucial core principles that drive how we work. We want fair, collaborative, democratic communities where everyone takes responsibility and does their bit.

Third, the council has to change how it behaves. It should not see itself as a service provider. Building on the community’s strengths, the council should see its role primarily as a connector, creating the space and the conversations for change to happen. It should start with what people can do for themselves. It must build trust by being honest, open and transparent, sharing power and responsibility and involving all stakeholders in every decision that affects them.

Fourth, the conversation should not be about the council but about the place. People don’t love their councils (and probably never will), but they do love the place they live. Our shared challenge is to create productive places with thriving local economies, where people have the confidence, skills and networks to take care of themselves and their families.

Fifth, the idea of sharing is powerful. Our citizens should be shareholders – they make a contribution and they get the benefit. That’s why ideas like shareholder governance and community dividends are so important.

We’ll be mulling over these ideas when we meet in Plymouth in June, but it feels like a lot of energy is there to be harnessed as we work to make it real.

Abigail Melville is the RSA’s CCIN lead.

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