Public services are at a turning point

17th January, 2013 3:57 pm

Public services are at a turning point. The money’s run out just as our ageing population and rising unemployment mean there is more demand for social support than ever before. We need to find ways to do different for less, because, if we don’t, those people who need public services the most will find them salami-sliced away until they no longer exist – and the political right will take this manufactured failure as an excuse to extend privatisation.

In a very real sense, public services must adapt or die. Over 20 leading Labour councils are exploring how to make public services work better for the people they exist to serve by using cooperative approaches to transform them. A new publication, Towards Cooperative Councils, explores how this movement is developing. Taking examples from across the country, the publication shows how far Labour’s cooperative councils have come in reshaping local services by rethinking the relationship between citizens and the public services they rely on.

We can run public services differently by making them more directly accountable to the people they serve. State ownership is not the only form of public ownership, and accountability to the state is not the only form of democratic accountability. There are viable alternative forms of public ownership, accountability and control, and the key to making these work is empowerment – shifting power from the providers of public services to the people who use them, giving citizens the power they need to make the change they want to see.

Doing that is not simple; it requires a revolution in public services because empowering users means turning public services upside-down. It requires a total rethink of what a council is and what a council does, and it offers lessons for how a future Labour government might reshape public services more widely by extending people power.

The publication shows how Rochdale has mutualised its entire housing stock so that tenants have the power to improve housing services and the places where they live. Lambeth is putting its youth services under community control so that individual neighbourhoods can choose the services that will steer vulnerable young people away from crime and towards a better future. Stevenage is involving local people in deciding how to spend community budgets. In all these cases, power and control is shifting from town halls to citizens – and by doing that the quality of services improves.

The cooperative revolution in public services has already begun. It is an approach that can help people unlock their destinies by giving them back control over their lives, and its effect is greatest for the most marginalised and excluded communities. As Ed Miliband says in his introduction to the publication:

“There is a hard-headed case for this kind of bottom-up decision-making. Often it is the best way to make sure that change reflects what residents want, or to make sure that services are protected. But it serves our values too. At the heart of One Nation politics is a belief in binding people together as a community. Often the services that are chosen or protected are the very services that do that. In that way, cooperative councils can be a direct means to building One Nation. Instilling an ethos of the common good, emphasising what we share, and beginning to rebuild the ties of community and solidarity that encourage people to spend time together and look after one another.”

This publication might just offer us a glimpse of what a future One Nation Labour government looks like, a future that’s being forged right now in Labour councils across the country.

Steve Reed is the Labour MP for Croydon North and former leader of Lambeth Council. You can download “Towards co-operative councils” here.

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