If we are honest the last 12 months have not been great for advocates of cooperation. The debacles at the Co-operative Group and Bank have cast doubt on the value that cooperative principles bring to the lives of ordinary families. It is sadly part of a wider process which includes the private sale of most building societies in the 1980s where individualism has triumphed over collective values.
It was in order to provide an alternative that a number of councils created the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network. We want to transform the existing relationship between local government and the public – to build creative organisations with a cause. Our fundamental belief is that everyone has the potential to contribute and we can all benefit if they do.
We created the network to provide an antidote to the counsel of despair about the role of local councils since 2010. We all know that the cuts to local government funding have created massive challenges to most councils and particularly those representing deprived communities. Councils cannot carry on indefinitely making cuts and trying to balance growing demand for schools, social services and housing with reductions in staffing and available finance.
But we also know that we have to create our own solutions and rebuild hope and trust in politics.
I am particularly proud that the network covers councils from all parts of the United Kingdom who can learn from each other and provide solutions to some of the most pressing issues in our society. Millions of people lack access to affordable credit and are forced to rely on the ‘legal loan sharks’. As a network we have worked hard to support credit unions in our towns to provide a realistic alternative. In Liverpool the credit unions have developed an alternative form of payday loans that can respond to a request for a loan within hours at interest rates far below that provided by Wonga and others. But we also know that we have to change the financial environment and create a better deal for all of us. In Glasgow they have a ‘Starter for ten’ scheme where they have opened a credit union account for all Year 7 pupils with an initial £10 deposit. Islington is taking the lead on discussions with the new emerging banks on a better deal for lenders and fairer credit terms.
Here in Oldham we have always been a hard-working town but in recent years the reward for work has been getting less and less. We need to attract new jobs into the town but also ensure that our population can gain new skills at all levels.
One example: we have lots of jobs in local warehouses and distribution centres but also vacancies for LGV drivers. However, local people, both in work and unemployed, cannot afford to obtain the relevant licence. Through our innovative ‘Warehouse to Wheels’ scheme we will invest in those who want to get on in life and are willing to work hard. With the relevant qualification our residents can earn an additional £7,000 a year (and over £148,000 over a working life). That rewards those who want to get on in life and challenges the sometimes snobbish way some look at skills with a focus entirely on academic qualifications.
Sometimes we can over-complicate politics, particularly on the left. Most people just want a good job, a decent home and someone to love. Cooperative values go with the grain of British life and society. We just need to be more confident about expressing them and trusting people to do the right thing.
Cllr Jim McMahon is Leader of Oldham Council, Chair of the CCIN and Leader of the LGA Labour Group. Follow him on Twitter at: @cllrjimmcmahon.
This article originally appeared on Progress Online.