Nick Matthews, Co-operatives UK – Co-operative Councils: The Way Forward

Nick Matthews Chair of Co-operatives UKIt was a pleasure to visit Croydon for the CCIN annual meeting on 4th October, opened by Sharon Taylor the Leader of Stevenage Council and Chair of CCIN who reminded us of all the great work that has been done during the year and the significant growth in membership.
I am not sure what I expected, but my visit to Croydon has completely changed my image of “south of the river” and it was good to be welcomed by Council leader Tony Newman.
Croydon led the invaluable CCIN work on community led housing but he pointed out that this is only one thing that the authority are leading on.
The first keynote was by Steve Reed MP, honorary president of CCIN, former leader of Lambeth, now member of Labour’s shadow ministerial team. He raised our eyes with a very thoughtful contribution (full version here) pointing out that now was the time for the co-operative movement, we are living through a crisis of liberal democracy and co-operatives can help people really take back control and see off the threat of nationalist populism to our communities.
The first panel session was to see how the diverse membership where making a contribution to building the ‘co-operative commonwealth’ ably chaired by Lib Peck, Leader of Lambeth Council who pointed out the beauty of the innovation word in our organisations title and the scope it gave for innovation around our co-operative values. There where excellent contributions in this session from Simon Parkinson CEO of the Co-operative College who put the concept in its historical setting. From Habib Rahman of Newcastle City Council, who despite having just dropped in from Bangladesh emphasised the importance of developing a ‘co-operative culture’.  Steve Eling leader of Sandwell Council expressed how it was important to create social enterprises and co-ops that where not totally dependent on local authority contracts. And finally in this session Simon Hall from Crawley outlined their approach to the “make or buy’ decision in sourcing or outsourcing that is the question.
The second panel session was around the theme of Community Wealth Building. Matthew Brown leader of Preston City Council chaired the session and explained explained how the 2008 banking crash had pulled a key development in his city and how as a consequence they had to completely rethink their approach to economic development. Danny Thorpe the new leader of Greenwich Council outlined how, in a few short months, he had been able to revitalise his authority’s approach to creating social value with a great example of a local market.
Peter Bradbury of Cardiff Council (currently Co-op Council of the Year) explained how his city too had been hard hit by the banking crash and that whatever the shape of that Brexit given the structure of the Welsh economy it would not be good news and building resilience in his city with co-operative tools was essential. Manju Shahul-Hameed of Croydon Council gave a whistle stop tour of all the activities that the authority where engaged in, including efforts to strengthen the employability of local people by leveraging their £400million spend and their ‘good employer’ charter. Chris Penberthy of Plymouth City Council was glad to be back after a short sojourn out of office. Plymouth is in the vanguard when it comes to developing co-op solutions and is currently, with the aid of Co-operatives UK, in the process of working out how to help double its local co-operative economy.
The lunch interval saw a rich fringe program with sessions on tackling modern slavery, sustainable food and the role of scrutiny in supporting co-operative councils. It was great to see Croydon sign up for the Co-op Party’s charter on tackling modern slavery.
The afternoon session began with a panel on using co-operatives and co-operative values to strengthen our communities. Chaired by Steve Reed MP, contributions where from Iain Malcolm leader of South Tyneside who explained his authorities approach to transferring assets to the community does not mean washing your hands of those communities. On a smaller scale but no less significant for those involved Ken Dalton of Halewood Town Council on Merseyside showed how co-operative values could help strengthen a community under stress with some very practical examples of community support. Finally in this session ,John Atherton, Co-op UK’s Head of Membership showed examples of co-ops doing their bit to strengthen the communities in which they sat from around the country.
The afternoon’s first keynote was from Lord Kennedy the Labour Party’s Shadow Minister for Local Government who highlighted the Party nationally to this agenda and his own personal commitment to Housing Co-ops and Credit Unions.
The final keynote of the day was from Liverpool Councillor and President of the National Members’ Council at the Co-operative Group, Nick Crofts. He spoke about the synergy between the Co-op Group and the Co-op Councils in that they both wanted to strengthen the communities in which they traded. The Group had devised its member benefit scheme to return benefit not just to members but to the communities in which they lived and worked. It was also great to see an issue they had championed, the campaign against modern slavery, being taken up by more and more local authorities.
Tony Newman leader of Croydon wrapped up the day and what fine hosts they had been. Such a rich experience. So many ideas for things to do and see, so many challenges of things we can do better and so many new ideas and ways of looking at difficult issues. This conference felt like the Network coming of age. Much genuine co-operation and innovation in using that co-operative model to tackle old problems and create new opportunities.
Nick Matthews
Chair, Co-operatives UK