Cllr Jim McMahon: Cooperative localism – the future of public services

jim_mcmahonBy Cllr Jim McMahon
Leader of Oldham Council and Chair of the CCIN

The sleeping disconnected just woke up. Again.

If you believe the BBC, UKIP are on a whirlwind of success. If the measure of success is to appeal to fear and disconnection without offering any solutions to the problems faced by the UK then the BBC is spot on.

This isn’t new and the issues being picked up on now are the same issues the BNP found fertile ground in not that long ago.

When the BNP blasted on to the political scene ‘mainstream’ politicians rightly pointed out the extremism, obsessiveness and paranoia of the BNP leadership and its members. There were encouraging words about the need to address the underlying tensions in communities, which fed the BNP message.

The lack of decent jobs, decent housing and opportunity meant a huge number of those previously assumed to be Labour voters (when some hadn’t voted at all before) found someone else had identified the root of the problem, and guess what? it mirrored entirely their own view of the world.

So, let’s fast forward. The BNP are a shadow of their former selves and we can all celebrate that. But have the underlying issues all mainstream parties acknowledged been addressed?

As the fiscal squeeze tightens and long-term pressures exert themselves, local government faces difficult challenges. Many local authorities are finding it hard to resist the temptation of managing decline. But cooperative councils up and down the country are responding by transforming the way they work; developing closer relationships with their communities and trying to build more resilient and prosperous places.

We are seeing the emergence of a new cooperative localism that is rooted in place rather than structure. Those that are part of the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network (CCIN) are not seeing their role simply in terms of becoming cooperative local authorities, but as helping to build cooperative places. Our aim isn’t to tweak council bureaucracy. It is to unlock the potential of where we live.

This is very much what Oldham’s ‘whole place’ reforms are about: changing social norms and behaviours so that everyone does their bit to create a cooperative borough – be it residents, the private or third sector or those involved in providing public services. In the past we have all been guilty of providing services rather than working with local communities. Sometimes the small things made a huge difference and are very much ‘grassroots government’. One example of new ways of working comes from my ward in Failsworth. Here we worked with residents to plant trees that they have offered to look after. It went from being a council project to a local project with strong community support and the results are impressive too, what was once a grey street has been transformed.

Over the past year the CCIN has offered a critical platform for us to think in new ways, to work together as critical friends, and to develop and test ideas about public service reform.

In Sunderland we gained valuable insights into public service decentralisation. In York the council have worked with residents, staff and the Post Office to create a Library’s Trust that will protect the library service when public sector cuts threatened their survival. In Plymouth the CCIN will share place-based solutions for strengthening our communities: examining cooperative energy, cooperative economies and cooperative approaches to promoting fair and inclusive finance.

These case studies show the potential for a new type of cooperative localism.

But we’re under no illusions; we know building cooperative places takes real time and effort. And there is no doubt that we’re working in an extremely difficult environment: funding gaps have never been larger, demand is growing and we have to think hard about priorities.

In this context, thinking and acting cooperatively has never been more important. By putting openness, partnership and reciprocity at the heart of what we do, we are hoping to create cooperative boroughs where everyone does their bit, and everyone benefits.

Top-down governance has failed. Cooperative localism could help us define public services for a new era.

Cllr Jim McMahon is Leader of Oldham Council and Chair of the CCIN. Follow him on Twitter at @cllrjimmcmahon.