“Never knowingly understood”? Realities of a co-op council

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Last Wednesday, while Croydon Council was handing over its libraries to Laings, up the A23 at Brixton Town Hall, Lambeth Council was making an equally significant decision.

SEAN CREIGHTON looks at the work done over the borough boundary that might prove to be Steve Reed’s Lambeth legacy

Steve Reed, Labour’s candidate for Croydon North: will he leave a legacy in Lambeth of a successful co-operative council?

It is inconceivable that Steve Reed will lose the Croydon North by-election on Thursday, given the late Malcolm Wicks’ large majority. But what real influence will he have as MP?

Very little. He can pressure all he likes, but initially he will be an opposition party MP for a borough that is under Conservative control in a city with a Conservative mayor.

He may, though, have an important role to play in Labour’s campaign to regain control of Croydon Town Hall in 2014 by being a loud voice in the House of Commons on Croydon issues, and a continual visual presence in the constituency. This will require a change in behaviour from being the council leader of a multi-million-pound complex organisation, to a community engagement practitioner on the streets.

Reed’s other potential role as MP could be to help shape a well-thought through Croydon co-operative council approach, with real public engagement in the process which can be adopted in the first few weeks after the local council elections in April or May 2014.

The adoption of a co-operative council approach by Labour would be in sharp contrast to the Croydon Tories’ decision, finalised this week, to award the libraries contract to Laings. This is out of step with the decision of Wandsworth Council to award its libraries contract to the social enterprise Greenwich Leisure. Given Wandsworth’s history of pioneering and commitment to privatisation of council services since 1978, their rejection of the Laing bid speaks volumes.

Brixton Town Hall: A model for how Croydon could be run?

Of course, Croydon’s Tories could have decided to reject all the bids and to explore instead the extension of the community trust approach being used for the future of Upper Norwood Joint Library. But that would have given positive recognition to the claims of Steve Reed in respect of the Lambeth co-operative council initiative of which the funding rescue of Upper Norwood Library forms part.

But what is the reality of the co-operative initiative? As Lambeth Council Leader, Reed launched the co-operative council idea in the lead up to the 2010 local elections. It was a top-down initiative. There had been no large-scale attempt to engage the community and voluntary sector in debating and shaping it before Reed announced it. Many affected treated it with a great deal of scepticism, as a cover for a Labour council to make massive budget cuts palatable.

Lambeth’s co-op council has raised a range of complex issues and has not made enough progress to show positive benefits. The real shame of Steve Reed’s standing for Croydon North is that in pursuit of his parliamentary ambitions, Reed is on the verge of leaving his Lambeth colleagues to pick up the co-operative council pieces. Is the Lambeth Labour group sufficiently committed to the co-operative council initiative to see it through without further alienation of community and voluntary sectors? Will the Town Hall machine in Brixton use the interim period to fight back against the changes to their power?

This concern was expressed in the Brixton Blog on November 7: “The double instability of having a major shake-up – with all the potential job losses and service closures that could ensue – at the same time as a new leader, mean it is make or break time for the ‘co-operative council’ plans. It could be a time of fresh energy at the council, and a new approach that would actually convince residents to buy into the co-operative council idea.

“But if, in Reed’s absence, the ambitious new plan turns to chaos, Lambeth’s Labour politicians could be hit hard at the ballot box in 2014 – potentially spelling the end for the council’s big vision.”

So what was Steve Reed’s “big vision” for Lambeth? When first mooted, the media called it a “John Lewis Council”, but the confusion this created, as Reed often jokes, meant that soon after it was being referred to as “never knowingly understood”. After the 2010 elections Lambeth Council published its white paper The Co-operative Council: A new settlement between citizens and public services, a new approach to public service delivery setting out how it could continue to deliver vital services while managing significant cuts in public sector funding.

It set up a Co-operative Council Citizens’ Commission to consider the white paper which worked from July 2010 to January 2011. The council has been working ever since on trying to put the commission’s recommendations into practice.

Reed has made many speeches advocating the initiative. You can see his video interview in September following a fringe meeting at September’s Labour conference. Lambeth has now reached a point at which the full council adopted the next stage of changes that need to be made. The principles are:

• The citizen is central to everything the council does
• An explicit, focus on outcomes throughout
• Recognising citizens for what they can bring, not just what they need
• An enhanced role for ward councillors as community-facilitators
• Designating cabinet members as commissioners
• Making co-production with citizens the default way of working for all council staff
• Opening up the council’s data and information and making the council’s decision making as transparent as possible
• Developing greater levels of agility and flexibility as an organisation
• Encouraging innovation by becoming risk-aware rather than risk-averse

Co-operative commissioning

After four decades of disinvestment in its public libraries, under Steve Reed’s leadership, Lambeth recently opened a new library in Clapham

“Co-operative commissioning will require that Council staff work with citizens more equally at every level of decision making, recognising their strengths and assets at all times. Co-production – a term that means service users and service providers’ work together at every stage – will be central to how the Council will work. Co-production will take place at every step of the commissioning cycle; with continuing dialogue between citizens, councillors and professionals not just when a service is introduced, but throughout its period of design, delivery and review.”

The Role of Councillors
“Councillors will be comprehensively supported so that they can perform all three key components to their current roles as:
• community or neighbourhood champions – operating in the interests of the neighbourhood or community, undertaking case work and sorting issues;
• community connectors – making links between and within neighbourhoods, and understanding what the assets and strengths in the community are; and
• intelligence gatherers and “scrutineers” – understanding what is really working locally and where the Council needs to improve or change what it is doing.”

Council officers – staff – will have to change the way they work:
• Involving citizens directly
• Focusing on outcomes and understanding who benefits (beneficiaries) from our activities
• Enabling and advising councillors
• Operating as technical advisors

Flawed engagement

There was very little time for anyone affected in Lambeth to read and understand the recommendations that were put to the council’s cabinet meeting on November 11. The trade union representative complained about late publication and reserved his right to make representations to the full council meeting on November 21.

Another attendee, Jean Kerrigan, the Tenants’ Council delegate, “praised the ideal behind the co-operative council; however, there were questions around how the community had been engaged. She cited the consultation around One O’clock Clubs, which was well below the standard expected. Regarding commissioning and contracts, a lot of this had already happened in housing and many potential problems identified by residents had materialised.

“It was vital that there would be genuine discussions with all residents, not just those that the council wanted to listen to.”

It has even been suggested that this was all rushed through to ensure that it went to the Lambeth Council meeting on November 21 to enable national publicity for Reed before he stood in the Croydon North by-election on November 29.

No one claims that changing the Lambeth machine is an easy task. There has been a decades-long culture of senior officers in conflict with each other across and within departments, often with their own agendas distorting those of councillors, and often undermining the latter. The history of incompetence at Lambeth Council is well-known.

As an active observer working in Lambeth until earlier this year, I believe that mistakes have been made because even under Reed’s leadership the politicians have not been in control, as they are in Wandsworth. Many other groups consider Lambeth is less than co-operative with them.

For some, the inclusion in 2010 on the commission of Polly Toynbee, the Guardian journalist, and Stephen Bubb, a former Lambeth Labour councillor and chief executive to the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, begged questions about its seriousness, especially after Toynbee withdrew claiming lack of time.

The commission’s method of operating left much to be desired. The consultation meeting I took part in had no commission members in attendance and the views expressed were in the hands of council officers to report to the commissioners.

There have been several examples where the principles of the co-operative council have been set aside in the pursuit of other goals, such as capital receipts.

Implementing the co-operative council has not always been achieved with the approval of stakeholders, including Lambeth Council’s trades unions

Is Lambeth becoming more co-operative? Well that depends whether you are one of the large number of community and voluntary activists whose experience over many years in dealing with Lambeth politicians of all parties and officers has piled on cynicism after cynicism for the bogus consultations, and the ignoring of certain groups and activists.

Of course there are positive stories, but there are also many negative experiences. In the period since Reed launched the co-operative council initiative in 2010:

  • The council decision to sell the properties held on licence by short-life housing co-operatives triggered Kate Hoey, Vauxhall’s veteran Labour MP, to do a lengthy Adjournment Debate speech in parliament last December highly critical of the council. When Reed was selected to contest Croydon North, Lambeth United Housing Co-operative issued the following statement: “Based on the fairly safe assumption that Steve Reed will win the Croydon North by-election on November 29, one of Cllr Reed’s last acts in Lambeth should be to right the wrongs that have been committed on the issue of ‘shortlife’ housing co-ops, whereby some of the boroughs longest term residents face eviction. This issue – that has seen the break up of communities of 40 years standing – has shown the ‘co-operative council’ to be anything but. We hope that Cllr Reed will act urgently to put his ‘co-operative council’ back on track before he leaves it.”
  • If openness to local people is a key principle, then why did it take so long to deal with Ms C Baden’s Freedom of Information request for information on the Free School issue? What the Council finally answered suggests that even Free Schools could be part of the co-operative council initiative. Point 3 of the Co-operative Council Principles refers to citizens being “incentivised” to provide public services. “This could be seen to apply to Free Schools according to the extent to which they could make a positive contribution to addressing identified local priorities whilst working with the educational community and at the same time not undermining already successful schools.”
  • The controversial sale of the Beaufoy Institute buildings and car park in Kennington to a Buddhist group and a housing developer followed years of the council rejecting a variety of schemes from community and charity organisations to bring it back into use, especially for vocational training of young people. The consortium bid which would have put many of the community generated ideas into practice submitted by Lady Margaret Hall Settlement, the social enterprise South Bank Mosaics, a developer and others, was rejected. For some of the issues involved see my blogs here and here.
  • You would have thought that a “co-operative council” would value long-established community organisations and seek to ensure they continued. On November 30, the Lambeth Women’s Project will cease to exist. After many years occupancy of a building controlled by Stockwell Primary School, this organisation that worked particularly with BME women, was given notice of eviction. Its campaign to have that reversed has been unsuccessful and it appears that Lambeth Council did nothing to help it survive.

Community Hubs
Another plank of the initiative is the council’s consultation on community hubs. This involves the possibility of the council transferring buildings it owns to the community and voluntary groups which use them. The council’s management of its licences with such groups was extremely poor, as I documented for Stockwell Partnership in 2008-2009.

At one of the hub consultation meetings I did manage to get an apology from the cabinet member and the senior officer for that poor historic record. I argued that there was a strong case for such asset transfer even in a period of cuts. There is a cross-over with the libraries, as some are designated to be potential community hubs while others may be transferred to community trusts.

A Lambeth libraries campaigner says: “A vast culture change is needed to get Lambeth co-operating and that can apply as much to grassroots staff as to the high-ups… It is a vast undertaking, and trying to get staff/unions on board when having to make massive cuts will make it even harder. Hard to know if the will exists in Steve’s successors.

Steve Reed has the backing of Labour party leader Ed Miliband for the Croydon North by-election. When he leaves Lambeth, is there the will to follow through on his co-operative council plans?

“The only current full-scale co-op ventures are youth and libraries. The temporary chief librarian and two temporary helpers are clearly uncovering and sorting such a mess that they have not yet got to grips with the future.

“I do detect an underlying urge to hand over community buildings to anyone who is fool enough to want to take them on… The matching idea of ‘capacity building’  via training is completely daft.”

A leading member of one of the Friends Library Groups said: “Lambeth’s decision not to close any of its existing libraries, despite numerous threats and rumours to the contrary, and to continue to fund Upper Norwood, was brave, given their financial circumstances.

“Libraries are not big money compared with some other areas of council expenditure but there are of course votes in them. Almost nothing else gets the middle classes going as effectively as proposals to close libraries and that is widely recognised. Lambeth’s Libraries Commission also did a surprisingly good and thorough job last year which provided a sound basis for re-developing the service. They have freely acknowledged the neglect of the last 40 years and the dreadful state of most of their buildings…

“They have also recognised that the libraries have been providing a poor service for a long time and have brought people in from outside of a much higher calibre to try to improve things. We have yet to see any real results but there are signs that the staff are becoming better motivated and more pro-active, which is very welcome.

“Some Friends’ groups are working closely with officials and so far that is going quite well. Our experience is that the officials involved want to make tangible progress and are putting a lot of effort into re-vamping the service. They have been good to work with and although under-resourced for what they have to do, they have brought a lot of energy and new ideas which are very welcome.

“My personal assessment would be that in this relatively limited area the Co-operative Council is making some progress and should deliver results, but there is still a long way to go.”

Child and Youth Services
The time-consuming complexity of implementing co-operative practices was suggested in an email from a manager in Lambeth’s Children and Young People’s Services department, which spoke of a year’s work “developing new delivery and ownership models” for five youth centres, six adventure playgrounds and 12 one o’clock clubs. It all involved more than 100 meetings, followed by sessions for community groups attended by 600 people.

After two months of evaluating proposals “for service improvement, developing cooperative behaviours, innovation, sustainability – as well as safeguarding, equalities and financial probity”, a list of potential providers was established, with four of the 23 venues – nearly one-fifth – having to be re-tendered.

But according to a CYPS youth worker, “This process has been deeply flawed, poorly processed and is the subject of corporate and union complaint. I am being transferred to a media profit-making company, not a community group, who have no experience of co-operative working let alone youth or community development.

“What people say they will be providing and what actually occurs has forever been the problem with Youth, Play and I’m sure many other parts of the council, where new messiahs are just queuing up to take advantage of naïve councillors and managers.”

The council officer has 25 years of unblemished service, but fears for the future. “Services will disappear and sites will be sold off. If the council was genuine in its commitment to fresh and co-operative values, it needs to review what’s taken place as soon as possible. Paying people for just three years (10 per cent cut every year), to run what have been public provisions for 60 is not a sustainable model… [unless] you get rid of the professionals and bring in volunteers and kids.”

That view chimes with voluntary sector worker in Lambeth who said, “I don’t have a problem handing over previously council-run centres to the voluntary sector but the fact remains that over three years there is a real cut in financial resources to young people that the voluntary sector is being held responsible for finding elsewhere. Thus the council makes a cut and abdicates any responsibility for any loss of funding and thus services.

“Why hand over the centres and hand over responsibility to the voluntary sector for the council workers, too? This again looks like abdicating responsibility, even a cover up. If I were a council member of staff, I’d feel like I’d been handed a slow death.”

  • Sean Creighton was a founder member of Junction Co-operative, later Battersea Housing Co-operative, in the early 1970s. He worked with community and voluntary organisations in Lambeth from 1976 to 2012
  • Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon
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