There are Co-operative solutions to the challenges facing local government

Sharon Taylor

The Co-operative Councils Innovation Network is a collaboration between local authorities that are committed to finding better ways of working for, and with, local people for the benefit of their local community. Our work recognises the need to define a new model for local government built on civic leadership, with councils working in equal partnership with local people to shape and strengthen communities.

This means a new role for local authorities that replaces traditional models of top-down governance and service delivery with local leadership, genuine co-operation, and a new approach built on the founding traditions of the co-operative movement: collective action, co-operation, empowerment and enterprise. Our president and founder, Steve Reed MP, said at our recent conference in Rochdale: “The old politics can no longer deal with the scale of the challenges we face or the kind of society we’ve become. It’s made people lose faith in the future. We need to build a new politics that’s more open, more accountable and more responsive, day-to-day, directly to the people it serves, so instead of fearing the future people can shape it.”

Our network has become the fastest growing network in local government. Driven by a shared sense of values and a belief that the best policy making is driven from our communities and residents, our unique action-based innovation and shared learning is proving valuable to our members as the challenges of austerity bite ever deeper. We believe that whatever challenges face local government, there is always a co-operative solution based on resident involvement in designing and working with us to produce better services. That is the ‘Co-op difference’, and it is why we believe so strongly that it brings a definite ‘dividend’ for our community.

The values have not changed since co-ops began over 150 years ago; self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of our founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, education, social responsibility and caring for others. So where does the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network fit into this movement? Steve Reed, Jim McMahon and I, when we first started talking about the concept of a network over five years ago, saw this as a way of driving and sharing the co-operative ways of working that we were developing in our own councils and of bringing together other local authorities and councillors who shared our values.

We are now a network of 28 councils from Glasgow to Plymouth and from Hull to Cardiff, and include five London boroughs and the Greater Manchester combined authority. Last year we expanded our membership to offer affiliate, associate and individual members the opportunity to join, taking the total membership to 66 organisations. We have been delighted to welcome town, community and parish councils into the network as well as opposition groups that share our values.

We are not a think-tank or part of an academic study, we are a group of councils that are innovating in real time, in real communities, and with action-focused projects around the country. Fundamentally our councils believe in people-powered politics, and that residents must be involved in designing, leading and delivering the services that we all use. We believe that councils should be seen as facilitators and enablers of communities, not the dead hand of bureaucracy that stops things.

Last year, we funded policy labs to enable our members to explore work that engaged communities in new ways and to encourage the development of co-operative economies. Our innovation focus for this year is on health and social care, and we recently agreed funding for 11 policy prototypes to enable us to contribute to the debate on one of the key issues facing local government. There is innovation across our network, and we share our knowledge and innovation by publishing it on our website – where we currently have over 200 case studies – and at regular events and conferences.

We want to encourage our members to develop the solutions to today’s problems and be thinking about those that will come round the corner tomorrow. Fundamentally, building the capacity of those individuals and families that make up our communities makes them stronger – and that must be a real dividend! You can find out more about our network here.

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