Debate: Is the ‘co-op council’ really co-operating with cuts?

Local Labour councillor Edward Davie says Red Pepper’s recent article on Lambeth’s ‘co-operative council’ was disappointing. Below, council trade unionist Jon Rogers responds
March 2013

Read the original article here

Lambeth council is used to being criticised. Recently local government minister Brandon Lewis accused us of ‘lazy socialism’ for spending £600 on posters offering help to residents whose benefits are about to be cut by the Tory/Lib Dem government. The benefit cuts will reduce the income of one sixth of our population, costing at least an estimated £1 million a year in bad debts to the council alone and pushing thousands into poverty and out of London.

Still, I am much more comfortable being attacked by right-wing Tory ministers bent on dismantling the welfare state than I am by comrades writing in Red Pepper, and so I was very disappointed to read the last edition’s article ‘Co-operating with cuts’, which attacked our efforts to involve communities in decision-making whilst dealing with the most severe budget reduction in our history.

Protecting the vulnerable

Our political priority is to protect the poorest and most vulnerable and so despite the straitened times our council is borrowing £500 million to bring our social housing up to a ‘Lambeth Standard’, a quality level being determined by local residents after thousands participated co-operatively drawing up their priorities to improve homes.

Similarly our Youth Co-operative now has nearly 2,000 members from all sections of the community informing commissioning decisions around youth services and education. Partly as a result of this approach Ofsted recently declared our children's services 'outstanding' in four out of four categories, making our service the highest rated in the whole country. Similarly we are now ranked eighth by Ofsted in terms of the proportion of pupils attending 'good' or 'outstanding' schools who are achieving well above national average exam results. Quite an achievement for the 14th most deprived borough in the UK with very high levels of children with English as a second language.

Despite suffering a 45 per cent cut in our central government grant between 2010 and 2016 we have not shut a single library – in fact we have opened a new one in Clapham that has won several awards and seen a 300 per cent increase in users. We have also saved the Upper Norwood library after Tory Croydon (which we shared financial responsibility with) pulled the plug – we are now handing the library to the community to run as a co-op. Similarly we have just opened a new leisure centre in Clapham with two more in Streatham and Norwood to open in the next 18 months to be run by a co-operative.

Managing the cuts

Unlike the early 1980s it is not an option for Lambeth council to refuse to set a legal, balanced budget. If we did the government would appoint commissioners to run the council direct from Whitehall imposing cuts with little local understanding or consultation.

As a result we are doing are best to manage the cuts so they do the least harm to our most vulnerable residents. Our drive to become a co-operative council is not a response to the cuts but an innovative change designed to empower our residents so that they gain in confidence, stop feeling like passive recipients of services and start taking control of their environment to make positive changes. In time this might produce savings because the evidence shows that when service users have more control over the design and production of the services they use the services become more efficient.

We are not pretending the process has been perfect and mistakes have, and will continue to be, made because this is an entirely new way of running a council. The important thing is that we learn from mistakes and not let ill-informed critics blow us off course and back to the ways of militants like Ted Knight who bankrupted the council, ruined services for residents and helped destroy the Labour Party's reputation for sensible governance for 18 years.

Edward Davie is a Labour councillor in Lambeth. @EdDavie


Council trade unionist Jon Rogers gives an alternative view of the ‘co-op council’

Lambeth Unison shares with Lambeth Labour group an understanding that our borough is being hit by scandalously large reductions in funding and that this is the fault of the Tory-led coalition government.

Where we differ is in our assessment of the role of the local labour movement when working class communities are under attack by a cabinet of millionaires. In Lambeth in 2013, this difference has two dimensions – it's about cuts and it's about the ‘co-op council’.

In relation to cuts, it is true that it is the fault of the Tories and their Lib Dem stooges that Lambeth will, on current spending plans, have lost a massive 45 per cent of its central government funding by 2016. The council has made £66 million cuts over the past two years. There are another £108 million to come over the next four.

Since the general election (up to the end of last September) Lambeth had made 550 redundancies. Up to another 1,000 are being spoken of – from a workforce now below 3,000. Further redundancies were outsourced when the Labour group agreed to transfer the job of answering Lambeth's telephones to Capita in Southampton. This tragic decision, intended to save £1 million, annually has taken far more than that out of the local economy.

No choice?

Ed says they have no choice because if they refuse to set a legal budget ‘the government would appoint commissioners to run the council direct from Whitehall’. This just shows how little effort some comrades have put into considering the current legal position.

It would be more accurate to say that, whereas in the 1980s councillors who put their duty to the voters before their duty to a hostile government risked surcharge and bankruptcy, councillors who took such action now would simply trigger the powers which chief finance officers did not have back then.

The honest truth is that no one really knows how the government would respond if a number of Labour councils stood together to set the budgets that their communities needed, rather than those which George Osborne and Eric Pickles dictate. I suggest Ed goes to Birmingham on 16 March for the ‘Councillors Against the Cuts’ Conference in order to consider this question further.

In Lambeth though it's not just about cuts – it's also about "co-ops".

Unfortunately, because he is a councillor, Ed is not particularly well informed about what is happening on the ground in relation to the ‘drive to become a co-operative council’ of which he is clearly proud. He lauds ‘our Youth Co-operative (which) now has nearly 2,000 members from all sections of the community informing commissioning decisions around youth services and education.’

Check with the officers, Ed. The nascent Youth Co-operative, which hardly even yet exists has, as yet, had no formal role in commissioning decisions. Indeed the so-called ‘early adopters’ of the ‘co-operative council’ were identified from on high by a commission led by cabinet members, and outsourcing decisions were taken by a panel of senior officers with no reference to the Youth Co-operative.

It was the excellent performance of hard working staff in children's social care delivered the ‘outstanding’ Ofsted result of which the Council - and its workforce - is rightly proud. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the Youth Co-operative and it is shameful to try to co-opt this achievement to justify an unrelated political project.

What the "co-operative council" has delivered so far in Children's and Young People's Services has been two years of chaos, confusion and demoralisation followed by the piecemeal outsourcing of some of the services chosen from above for this irresponsible experiment.

‘Co-ops’ and outsourcing

At the same time, the council has broken its promise not to close adventure playgrounds when, having forced out the in-house workforce by proposing untenable cuts in working hours and pay, it then had to terminate, at a moment's notice, an interim contract with a voluntary group over safeguarding concerns, in relation to which Unison is still waiting for a proper response from the local Safeguaring Children's Board.

This scandal was part and parcel of the ‘co-operative council’ – as was the decision to reject, on spurious grounds, a workers’ plan to retain in-house the much-loved One O’clock Clubs, and the decisions to transfer at least two of our youth centres into the hands of private companies.

Ed and his comrades in the Labour group may truly believe that ‘our drive to become a co-operative council is not a response to the cuts but an innovative change designed to empower our residents.’ As a socialist who has spent his life in the Labour Party, I'm the last person to knock either idealism or hopeless, unfounded optimism.

However, in the real Lambeth (as opposed to that which is imagined) officers interpret the ‘co-operative council’ as incitement to outsource, so that is what is beginning to happen on the ground, albeit slowly.

Unison hopes that councillors will, as they say they intend to, revise the council's constitution so that they, rather than officers, take more decisions. The current position is that - for example - the decision to privatise youth centres was taken by senior officers in private as councillors refused to take responsibility for taking the decisions in public.

In future, Lambeth councillors may know more about what they are talking about when they seek to rebut legitimate criticism. I suppose that won't stop them attacking Ted Knight of course, since a false history of the 1980s is an almost essential element in the threadbare intellectual armoury of the Sainsbury funded Progress faction who have a wholly unhealthy influence.

All I will say in response to the unwarranted attack on Ted is that, nearly thirty years after he sacrificed his political career to defend our borough, Ted Knight is greeted by cheers and ovations at meetings of the council workforce and gatherings of community activists.

If today's councillors can say the same in the 2040s I'll eat my zimmer frame...

Jon Rogers is Lambeth Unison branch secretary and secretary of the Lambeth council joint trade unions


 

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