Cllr John Cotton – How Birmingham is building a cooperative economy for all

Birmingham is proud to be a member of the Cooperative Councils' Innovation Network. The co-operative approach and values are the heart of our agenda to deliver social justice and inclusion for all of Birmingham’s communities. We showed the world when we hosted the Commonwealth Games last summer that Birmingham is a great, diverse city. It’s a place jam-packed with creativity and opportunity. But it’s also a city with many challenges, which are keenly felt by all too many residents. Two of the ten UK parliamentary constituencies with the worst levels of unemployment are in Birmingham. We have a decade wide gap in life expectancy between our richest and poorest citizens. 42% of the city’s children are growing up below the relative poverty line.

Councillor John Cotton
Labour & Co-op Councillor for Glebe Farm & Tile Cross Ward
Cabinet Member for Social Justice, Community Safety & Equalities
Birmingham City Council

All of these issues have been exacerbated by a decade of austerity that has cut Birmingham City Council’s budget by nearly two-thirds and slashed vital public services to ribbons.  So-called welfare “reforms” that have torn holes in the social security safety net and stoked a national housing crisis with consequences that are keenly felt in Birmingham.  On top of all this, we face the searing aftermath of the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis.

Our response to these serious challenges is one rooted in cooperation with local communities.  We seek to support and nurture local assets, by making intelligent use of the resources and powers of the Council and our partners.

This work started by focusing on the issues of in-work poverty and how we can work together to end the scandal of poverty pay in our city.  Our very first act on taking control of Birmingham City Council in May 2012 was to introduce the Real Living Wage for all Council staff, lifting 1700 employees out of low pay at a stroke.

Then we looked at how we could use our procurement and commissioning muscle to drive Real Living Wage take-up across our supply chain.  We made payment of Real Living Wage a condition of doing business with the Council.  Now, we’re working with partners from across the city’s business, public and voluntary sectors on an ambitious plan to make Birmingham an official Living Wage City by doubling the number of employees uplifted to the Real Living Wage and the number of accredited Living Wage employers headquartered in our city by 2024.

Despite the strong headwinds created by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, progress is impressive.  This year, we are already 20% ahead of yearly target to increase no of employees getting the Real Living Wage and we’ve got another 33 big employers on board, including Aston University, Warwickshire Cricket Club, Wesleyan Assurance and the Mailbox.

Alongside Real Living Wage, we’ve focused on how our procurement can create wider social value for our communities and asked how we can spend more money and buy more goods and services locally.  We want to ensure that the money we spend also drives growth and opportunity for local people, especially those who are most affected by economic and social exclusion.

So, we’ve set an expectation of those bidding for contracts with us that a percentage of contract spend should be made within 30 miles of the point of delivery.  The more a bidder proposes to spend within that radius, the higher we will score their bid.  Furthermore, their score gets multiplied by 3 if the beneficiary of their actions falls within the most deprived wards of the city.  We also set a default 20% social value weighting when we assess bids (and in some cases, the social value weighting is even higher).

To help local businesses and contractors access opportunities, we’ve created the Find it in Birmingham portal ( – a one-stop website.  We now have 52,000 members registered with the site, which has posted 6511 opportunities with combined value of £37bn.

As the Census 2021 has shown, Birmingham is an amazingly diverse place.  We’re working hard to ensure that our workforce reflects this diversity – and our supply chain should too.  That’s why we are working with Aston University on a Diversity Supply Chain project to support SMEs run or owned by diverse or minority communities. 

Our approach works.  In 2021-22, our 20 biggest contractors alone have delivered over 114,000 plus weeks of local jobs, together with well over 12,000 weeks of apprenticeships and work placements.  They spent nearly £3m with social enterprises, donated over £300,000 to local causes and delivered around 22,000 hours of volunteering.

Birmingham City Council now spends 56% of its procurement spend within the city boundary and 78% within the West Midlands.  We’re spending with, and investing in, our local communities.

Having looked at what the Council does on its own, we then asked the question: what about our partners?  How do we maximise the impact of our collective spend?

Working with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) we’ve built the Birmingham Anchor Network, bringing together the City Council, two universities, two major housing providers and a hospital trust.  Collectively, we account for a total spend of £1.3billion.

By working together and thinking differently about how we spend and why, we’re now retaining some 60% of this collective spend within the region.  We’ve developed projects to increase employment from our most deprived areas and marginalised communities.  West Midlands Police and Bournville Village Trust are working together to recruit a more diverse range of police officers.  University Hospitals Birmingham has been working to help residents at risk of redundancy from the hospitality sector switch to new careers in health and social care.  We’re looking at how all of us can manage our land and assets in a different way, like using buildings in Ward End Park as a training and recruitment hub for the nearby hospital, bringing vital jobs and opportunities to East Birmingham.

We’ve also applied values of co-operation and partnership to the delivery of our own services.  In Adult Social Care, we’ve moved from a situation of semi-permanent budget crisis, driven by needed to provide high levels of critical care packages, to an approach that’s focused on prevention and helping older people retain their independence.  We’ve done this by building Neighbourhood Networks, commissioned by the Council from the voluntary and community sector. These networks link together local assets and start up activities in areas where they’re lacking. They also deliver micro commissioning at a local level, delivering activities to keep people independent.  It’s an approach that has eliminated pressures on social care budgets but most importantly, it means lots of people are enjoying better, happier and healthier lives!

Partnership, collaboration and co-operation have also been at the heart of our response to the cost of living crisis.  In September 2022, Birmingham City Council declared a formal cost of living emergency and set aside £5million from our Financial Resilience Reserve to support the city’s response. 

Working in partnership with our voluntary and community sector, we’ve built a network of Warm Welcome spaces to keep people safe and warm.  There’s now nearly 200 across city, supported by a Council-funded grants scheme.

We’ve worked with our communities to put in place grants to support food banks and pantries through the winter and expanded advice and information services in partnership with community sector.

Like every part of the country, Birmingham faces big challenges in the months ahead.  There will doubtless be more difficult calls and tough choices to make, but the hallmark of our response to all of these is co-operation and partnership. 

For us, it’s about finding the opportunities to work with, not “do to” communities and local organisations. It is only by working together, respecting local needs and empowering local leadership, that we can deliver the lasting change that our city and its many different communities need and deserve. This is the vital difference that a Cooperative Council can make.