What is a co-operative council?

The idea that local authorities might become ‘co-operative councils’ has emerged over recent years. From Oldham to Edinburgh, Newcastle to Rochdale, it is great to see the interest in and commitment to co-operative working.

There is an overlap between public ethos and co-operative values, not least around open and democratic models of organisation.

But the challenge is that it is not an entirely easy fit. Co-operatives are an established form, underpinned of course by an international definition and agreement. We are enterprises. Co-operatives can be many things, but not, without very significant stretch, can they be a local authority.

What matters then perhaps is not form but action. If a council is genuinely pro- co-operative, then the results ought over time to be clear. So it is welcome that a community of co-operative councils has started, slowly, to coalesce, kickstarted by the Co-operative Party, and last month, published a collection of policy contributions on the potential of the idea. The sections on education and housing, in particular, are strong because they talk to practical action, already happening.

It has taken time, not unreasonably, for this agenda to take shape. In 2010, under the aegis of the Local Government Association Labour Group, around one hundred councils expressed interest in the idea of becoming a co‑operative council. A document, titled Co-operative Communities – Creating a shared stake in our society for everyone was published that same year. There is more focus now in terms of numbers, with twenty one councils signed up – still with the same political affiliation – but also more visible ambition.

Co-operatives UK is the recognised voice of the movement, so we have a natural concern to protect the integrity of co-operative action. So what would we say made for a co-operative council? I think it has to have more bite, to ensure genuine action rather than just rhetorical political positioning, with the following steps as a draft, outline set of criteria:

  • the authority endorses the internationally recognised co-operative and ethical values as a basis for work that it takes forward as a co-operative council
  • there is a Cabinet Member for co-operatives
  • plans for local economic development, such as for jobs, investment and housing, include an explicit component focused on the development of co-operative enterprise, including credit unions
  • there is an explicit recognition in commissioning of the added value that can come from co-operative and mutual enterprises
  • commissioning staff have received training in co-operative models
  • they are open to the potential of services that are being spun out services where appropriate being run on high quality co-operative models
  • services that are spun out of direct provision encourage a co-operative or mutual form and protect assets through common ownership or a wider asset lock where they have been developed with taxpayer money
  • it operates as a Fairtrade Town, recognising the value of this as a form of support for producer co-operatives overseas
  • they encourage schools, where the national context allows this, to convert to co-operative schools, following the options now available for this
  • they encourage agencies that act as partners locally, such as further education colleges and social housing, to consider co-operative and mutual models of governance
  • they have given consideration / had a debate on sourcing utility services, including banking, energy and telephony from co-operative providers
  • the authority operates as an employer with an appropriate partnership and form of consultation with trades unions.

There is no roadmap for this and these are suggestions only. But there does need to be a dialogue with the co-operative movement on this, to encourage action and to ensure that the co-operative identity as set out by the International Co-operative Alliance – of which Co-operatives UK is the domestic guardian – maintains its historic, hard-won integrity.

Come in, be co-operative – and act co-operative.

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8 thoughts on “What is a co-operative council?

  1. Great criteria for cooperative council status and strong piece Ed. I would add having a coop rep on the Local Economic Partnership board and ensuring commissioners have exhausted all means to achieve independent staff led spin-outs prior to the introduction of competitive tendering. In answer to your question I think criteria are essential in the attainment of values. Without clear guidelines as pathways to achievable goals Fairtrade Towns would not have led to the exponential growth of Fairtrade. Similarly Cooperative councils will only lead to greater staff and community buy-in through clear steps to achieving greater cooperation.

  2. While I like what you have to say here, it seems to me that something much less benign is happening with cooperative councils (at least with Lambeth Council where I am based). The word ‘co-operative’ is being appropriated by local authorities as a means of whitewashing actions that are decidedly not co-operative.

    ‘Co-operative’ is a concept wherein the people involved decide on the terms under which we will agree to ‘co-operate’. What we have instead in state imposing supposed ‘co-operation’ on us. This ‘co-operation’ actually means we will be expected to work for much less (or for free), we can expect fewer public services and we must compliantly accept austerity without questioning its premises.

    The austerity discourse legitimises this kind of massive transformation of the public sector. I would love to see genuine cooperation in governance at a local level – but this is impossible where the state is acting in an authoritarian manner. In the context of austerity, ‘cooperative councils’ are a mirage.

  3. Thanks Ed, this is very useful. I feel we also need to look carefully at how political democracy interacts with participative democracy; in other words, at how accountability works in co-operative delivery of public services.

  4. This might interest you: When a business isn’t a business: law and the political in the history of the United Kingdom’s co-operative movement
    TARA MULQUEEN ∗

  5. As always Ed your thinking is sound and insightful but it is no surprise that I share Sion and Cheryl’s observations. That said, it seems to me that the issue is more about challenging how we are governed both by Whitehall and local Councils ( command and control) which is outdated and keeps the power imbalances between those who govern and those governed. Public Services should be ” public” owned and controlled which requires a totally different governance construct. Co-operative values and principles perhaps offer an ethical approach, but until and unless communities and individuals OWN and are autonomous the means of meeting needs and aspirations, then control remains within Whitehall and Town Halls.

    Being a co-operative or being a Council ( or organisation ) based on its principles and values, does not in, and of itself, safeguard those without power and influence from poor services and poor practice……..” To those that have power, more will be given, to those without ……etc “. The issue therefore is about democratic control. I see no evidence, in my short history in a new Co-op ( Com-Ben) which came out of a government quango, that the co-operative sector and movement have really grasped it’s potential to fundamentally change how society regard those without power, live in poverty and without influence over and above engage in putting a cross on an election ballot paper every few years.

    As Owen Jones has written, the Working Class has become demonized, but as John Restarkis and Robin Murray have demonstrated, Co-operatives can humanize the economy and indeed public services. The problem perhaps is, not just how the public sector fail to understand Co-operatives but that the co-operative sector and movement fail to understand the public sector. !

  6. Pingback: Local government: a new era of co-operation

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