There are two tough but reasonable questions that are often posed to us from people that are sceptical about a cooperative model of local government. Firstly, what is distinctive about the cooperative approach to public services? Secondly, what is it that coherently binds member councils together in the Network or is this just flashy rhetoric?
CCIN conference in Plymouth went some way to answering these questions. The “Making it real” event really underscored how much we’ve come along in our journey to becoming a cooperative council, and how cooperative ideas are genuinely beginning to shape – uniquely – the practice and culture of our councils and the communities we work with. We have matured from being a loose collection of local authorities with cooperative aspirations, to innovators that are transforming the way we work in a uniquely cooperative way. The learning we shared at the workshops provided rich examples of how we are beginning to develop Cooperative Economies, Cooperative Energy, Cooperative Education and Cooperative approaches to promoting financial inclusion. The sense I got is that we were not only connecting to share ideas, but were also coming together to troubleshoot and critically reflect on our cooperative reform programmes. In other words, we are thinking hard about how to ensure cooperation runs through what we do and is successful in achieving a genuine and positive change in the outcomes of local people.
In the Energy workshop, for example, there was a general consensus that collective energy switching campaigns on their own aren’t very effective at reducing fuel poverty; and that councils have a critical role to play in unlocking local capacity to create community-based solutions to energy challenges. In Plymouth the Council provided business capacity and financial support to help set up the Plymouth Energy Community (PEC), an independent energy co-operative that raised £600,000 worth of investment in only 7 weeks – with 50% of the investment coming from local people. Oldham Council pioneered innovative approaches to collective switching and is using smart data and value modes analysis to target capacity building and behaviour change interventions; building on the unique strengths of their communities to help them take ownership of local energy projects. Other councils also provided real, practical case studies and a consensus emerged that a future direction for cooperative energy could be for cooperative local authorities to shift from facilitating switching to providing social tariffs, working with community energy organisations to market bespoke tariffs, underpinned by a transparent business model. This is a model we’re going to look at going forward; and it’s just one example of what makes cooperative localism distinctive and what makes the Network such a valuable resource.
We have some excellent examples of Co-operative education in Plymouth. Lipson Cooperative Academy (judged outstanding by Ofsted) is showcased nationally and Internationally, as an example of how co-operative principles applied to education can achieve dramatic results. The aim of the Trust is to further the life chances of young people in the community in a socially responsible and ethical way. Membership is open to Students, Alumni, Staff, Parents and the Community and anyone can join and exercise a vote so long as they are committed to the values and principles of the International Co-operative Alliance.
There are many ways in practice that the co-operative aims are visible and lived by the school. Students are involved in many democratic enterprises that may be social or business orientated and these enterprises, which are run by the students themselves, operate within the frame of the co-operative values and principles and are active at the Lipson Learning Co-operative Trust.
Co-operative Principles also apply in the learning environment. A structured and disciplined method of teaching, called Co-operative learning, is an approach that encourages dialogue and promotes confidence in the learner. Several schools in Plymouth have already moved to co-operative trust status and more are in the process of following their example.
In Plymouth we see co-operative values and principles permeating debates around models of governance and autonomy. Alongside the Cooperative Schools, we are supporting the wider development of cooperation and collaboration within education among a range of organisations within the city. For example, helping schools to benefit from the integration of school to school support services and, benefit from economies of scale when commissioning support services. We are also seeking to extend adult and community learning services through a mutualisation model.
Cooperative councils are doing important work on supporting and measuring the economic impact and role of co-operatives and social enterprises in the local economy, we are looking at public spending in new ways to build the social economy and moving from just passively delivering grants to promoting skills development, entrepreneurship and social capital. Here in Plymouth we are proud to have become a Social Enterprise City; and we’re developing a vision for a social enterprise high street. Our colleagues in the CCIN are also exploring ways in which co-operatives and social enterprises can not only deliver economic benefits, but also tackle deprivation and promote fairness and empowerment.
Cooperative councils are also finding innovative ways to widen the reach and membership of credit unions and fair credit. Glasgow has established a pioneering ‘starter for 10’ scheme which offers all year 7 secondary school children to open a credit union account; 50% have already done so. In Liverpool the council is looking at developing a fair alternative to payday loans. But financial inclusion is about more than just credit unions: several cooperative councils are having conversations with mainstream banks about affordable lending. Councils also have a critical leadership and advocacy role to play in supporting residents affected by debt, Islington has established a Debt and Income Coalition which aims to maximise income collection across the council but also provide support to residents in debt with the council.
The values and the political leadership of cooperative councils are absolutely essential to building prosperous local economies and driving financial inclusion, a point strongly made by Dame Pauline Greene when she launched the conference. What makes cooperative councils unique is that we are not only trying to transform our public services, but that we are doing it in a way that is congruous with cooperative values. Embedding values into organisations that have traditionally been top-down and managerially driven is not a simple task but we are making real progress. From energy cooperatives to campaigns for fairness; from resident-driven services to cooperative economic development, we are showing that cooperative localism has real practical substance. This is not a rebranding exercise: it is fundamentally transforming the way we work and the priorities we set, and as we develop our cooperative models, the future can only get more exciting.
Cllr Tudor Evans is Leader of Plymouth City Council and Vice Chair of the CCIN. You can follow him on Twitter at @CouncillorTudor.