Ask someone to outline their co-operative vision to meet the challenges that communities, individuals and organisations face up and down the length of the United Kingdom, to define co-operative values and principles which they hold to be the most important – and you’ll get a different answer from each person.
Within the co-operative movement, ‘co-operativism’ means something different to each of us. As such it has never sought to be a descriptive process which must be followed to the letter but it is seen as a beacon of values and principles to help shape our ideas about how we build a good and decent society.
It was a proud moment four and a half years ago when Labour-controlled Newcastle City Council committed to being a Co-operative Council – embracing co-operative approaches to the challenges and opportunities we faced as a city then and today.
Since then much has changed including the context in which core city councils such as Newcastle operate – not least in the prospect of devolution of powers to places.
And of course, the financial challenges facing the council is ever present, with a government ideologically wedded to an austerity agenda slashing local government funding, combined with a deficient of increasing cost pressures and newly introduced burdens.
Alongside this our communities have faced real hardship from a combination of welfare reform, a challenging jobs market during the bottom of the recession and also low-wage growth coupled with a continuing cost of living crisis.
But, now we are starting to see real signs of business confidence and growth coming back to Newcastle, giving residents a real cause for optimism for our future as the regional capital.
Now seems a good time to reflect on the progress Newcastle has made in terms of being a Co-operative Council, and to think about where it might be developed further looking forward.
There has been some really quite significant progress, based on co-operative values and approaches across Labour’s four key priorities for the city; decent neighbourhoods, tackling inequalities, a working city, and a fit for purpose council.
But first, it’s important to remember that when Labour committed Newcastle to become a Co-operative Council, it was never intended to be about a corporate process or a single programme of actions or projects that council officers would somehow ‘tick off’ and then move onto the next thing.
The essence of being a Co-operative Council is about seeking new ways of doing things with our communities and partners from all sectors because Labour Councillors recognised from the outset that we faced big challenges for which there were no easy answers.
So we rejected so-called easy solutions such as wholesale outsourcing or even in-house only approaches to services. Actually, we recognised that this was about much more than just council services – important as those are. Being a co-operative council is as much as about thinking differently about how the council invests in economic growth and inclusion or how it engages with communities in key outcomes such as tackling health inequalities.
So, councillors and council officers in Newcastle have used Co-operative values as a guide – as a starting point to do things differently with people and partners across the city.
And, there are countless examples of this in action – big and small, and it is worth touching on a few here.
It’s particularly striking how Newcastle Council as an organisation has changed. Following Labour gaining control of the Council in 2011, initially change was about getting the operating model and structures right to be a fit for purpose organisation ready to go out and work with people in new and different ways.
But, increasingly this has been matched with a culture shift in the organisation – where people at different levels are more empowered to do things differently.
Through changing culture, staff have been empowered to drive radical service reform themselves, rather than waiting for this to be centrally driven.
There are impressive examples of councillors leading co-operative change at a local level – again without this being corporately prescribed or programmed. Sophisticated approaches to devolution in neighbourhoods has come forward and can be seen in the Blakelaw Partnership and more recently in Byker Community Trust.
Even in economic development – not always naturally associated with co-operative approaches – Labour councillors have brought about new, more innovative approaches to working with the private sector partners to link economic growth with public good.
So, when the CEO of Legal and General – one of the world’s largest investment funds comes to Newcastle to announce massive, long-term and sustainable investment in partnership with the Council and Newcastle University – and, talks about growth and jobs through investing in regeneration – you know that co-operative approaches are really gaining momentum and permeating everything we do.
So, I think there is a genuine reason to feel pleased with the progress Labour has made in Newcastle so far with our Co-operative Council agenda.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that, as a city, we would have struggled to cope with the scale of reform, financial challenge and social and economic pressures without that commitment to think radically different through the prism of co-operativism.
But, there is still much to do. As a council, we still face a huge financial challenge as we all know. And, whilst we in local government have borne the brunt of the cuts in recent years, many of our partners are starting to feel financial pressures more acutely.
Also, we do not yet know the full impact of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, but the pain in our economy is in no doubt starting to be felt.
So, we simply have to work even harder with communities to develop new ways of working alongside them and increasing the pace of asset transfer if we are to make valued community buildings and spaces sustainable for the future.
We need to explore co-operative ways of maintaining the real treasures we have in our city’s parks.
Newcastle has had some really impressive examples of service reform in recent years – we can’t afford to rest on our laurels – we’ve got to increase the pace of reform and do that in ways that take our residents, partners and staff with us – and, we don’t underestimate the challenges in achieving that.
Increasingly we have to think about our partners in service reform – I mentioned the financial pressures partners are increasingly experiencing – so we have to join up approaches to service reform with a focus on outcomes.
And, of course communities have to be at the heart of this, supported and encouraged by local Labour councillors and council officers who are empowered to do things differently.
So, for these reasons – because being a Cooperative Council is as important now as it was in 2012 – I have worked to ensure that Labour in Newcastle reaffirms its commitment to continue to develop innovative, co-operative approaches with our partners and communities to meet the challenges we face today and tomorrow.
Councillor Stephen Powers
Newcastle City Council Labour Cabinet Member for Policy and Communications.
He leads on the Co-operative Council agenda and is an Executive member of the Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network.
Tel: 077 4286 1428