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.