As former Lambeth council leader Steve Reed makes his foray into national politics, following his Croydon North by-election win for Labour, it is a good time to look at the flagship project on which he launched his rise to parliament. Lambeth Council declared itself a ‘co-operative council’ under his leadership back in 2010, claiming to revolutionise the way public services are delivered. This new model of governance, Labour claimed, would empower communities by allowing them to make decisions about how their services are run.
This rhetoric of shifting power to the people has proven popular, with more than 20 Labour councils piloting approaches in co-operative public services through the Co-operative Councils Network founded by Reed. Other fans include the Guardian’s Zoe Williams, who has written about the ‘constructive changes’ by Lambeth and other councils as ‘heartening’. Reed has declared that his project ‘offers a model that can be extended right across public services nationally’. But what has been the residents’ experience in Lambeth?
One o’clock clubs – open access play centres for under-fives – were declared to be an ‘early adopter’ of the ‘co-operative model’ by Lambeth Council in 2011. The council’s plan was for the clubs to be run by ‘new co-operative entities’ by April 2012. This transfer of management has come under great criticism by users, who highlight the undemocratic nature of the process.
Fenton Forsyth, who takes his son to his local one o’clock club, declares his ‘disillusionment’ with the entire process: ‘There’s a feeling of helplessness amongst people that it’s not done properly, they don’t have their say. People are anxious about what’s been done and how it’s done.’ He describes a consultation meeting he attended. After hearing bids from organisations looking to run the service, ballot papers were distributed to the attendees. When Forsyth asked if he could have one for his wife, who was at work, he was told that only the people present could vote. He dismisses this as ‘snapshot democracy’, when the decision should involve the whole community. In any case, he adds that only 30 per cent of votes went to the club users, so that the council could override whatever they voted for regardless.
Lambeth’s libraries were another service that the council decided to restructure along supposedly ‘co-operative’ principles. A libraries consultation was set up encouraging residents to ‘have your say’. But as with the one o’clock clubs, users felt frustrated and ignored by the process and the outcome.
Lisa Sheldon is a student who grew up using Lambeth libraries. ‘We didn’t have much money, so the library was a really important resource. I did the summer reading trails as a child and used the computers and books for my homework.’ She took part in the consultation process but has little faith that Lambeth took her views into account. ‘The documents we were supposed to fill out were huge. It took me two hours to plough through, and even then it was clear from the wording of the questions that the council had already made up their mind as to what would happen.’
She says the results of the consultation revealed that a majority did not want or were undecided about the ‘co-operative library’ proposals, but the council went ahead anyway. ‘When Lambeth talk about shifting power to local people, it is obviously disingenuous. Handing people reduced library budgets and making them decide between books and staff is not empowering – to tell people to enforce their own cuts on their library service is unforgivable.’
‘The consultation spoke of creating “community hubs” in libraries,’ Sheldon continues. ‘But as anyone who has visited a Lambeth library knows, these places already serve the function of a community hub where all members of the community visit to access the great range of services provided. Lambeth council’s plans are so far away from the true meaning and practice of the word co-operative they are bringing the term into disrepute.’
A further aspect of current council policy, the sale of co-operative housing and the removal of residents who have occupied it for more than 30 years, was covered in the previous issue of Red Pepper (‘Short-life sell off’, RP Dec-Jan 2013). Along with the changes to libraries and children’s services, it demonstrates how Steve Reed’s ‘co-operative council’ has failed to live up to its rhetoric. Instead, a top-down power structure continues to drive forward the outsourcing, privatisation and sell-off of public resources in the name of empowerment.
A comment by Lambeth councillor Florence Nosegbe is revealing: ‘The key driving force behind [the co-operative council] is to get more local people involved in the vision that we as councillors are making.’ The vision is very much of the councillors’ making with local people’s participation limited to flawed consultations. As Lisa Sheldon puts it, ‘The only co-operation going on here is with the national government’s cuts.’