As Lambeth council leader Steve Reed seeks election as MP in the Croydon North by-election it seems like a good time to take a look at his flagship project on which he has launched his rise to national politics. Lambeth council declared itself a “Co-operative Council” back in 2010 claiming to revolutionise the way in which public services are delivered. This new model of governance would, they claimed, empower communities by allowing them to make decisions about the way in which their services are run.
This rhetoric of shifting power to the people has proven popular amongst local councillors, with over 20 Labour councils piloting approaches in co-operative public services through the “Co-operative Councils Network” founded by Steve Reed. Other fans include the Guardian’s Zoe Williams who has written about the “constructive changes” by Lambeth and other councils as “heartening”. Steve Reed has even declared in a New Statesman article that his project “offers a model that can be extended right across public services nationally.”
But before the “co-operative council” attempts to go national, it is important to look at what it has actually done here in Lambeth – behind all the rhetoric, what do residents make of the “co-operative council”?
One o’clock clubs were declared by Lambeth council to be an “early adopter” of the “co-operative model” in 2011. The councils’ plan was for the one o’clock clubs to be run by “new co-operative entities” by April 2012. However, there were not adequate external bids for all the one o’clock clubs and so they remain council run for the time being. This process of transferring the management of one o’clock clubs has come under significant criticism from users of the service who highlight the undemocratic nature of the process and their concerns for the future of the service under this new model.
Fenton Forsyth brought his children to the one o’clock clubs 25 years ago and now his youngest son, who is three years old, attends their local one o’clock club. He has seen the service over the last 25 years. It is precisely this wealth of understanding and experience that Lambeth council claim that the “co-operative council” will draw from, yet Forsyth described how he has been left “disillusioned” by the whole 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.” Forsyth describes how at a meeting arranged by the council the decision that the one o’clock clubs would be outsourced had already been made, “it wasn’t about the council there justifying why they’re getting rid of the service, it was more about who was going to win the bid. I missed it when Lambeth said, “look we’re sorry”, people didn’t have a chance to ask questions – so there was no accountability.”
After hearing bids from organisations looking to run the service, the attendees were given one vote. When Forsyth asked if he could have a ballot paper for his wife who was at work, he was told that only the people at the meeting could vote. He explained to me that this was “snap shot democracy” where only people at that specific moment could have a say, when it should involve the whole community. “When I started protesting at the level of democracy, they just didn’t have an answer.” Forsyth added that only 30% of votes went to the users, with the rest going to the council, so that whatever they voted for, it could be overridden by the council.
In the end Effra Nursery School won the bid for his local one o’clock club. Their plans include getting rid of a soft padded play area for children with special needs and bringing in a cafe. Forsyth expressed his worries at this shift from a universal service to a service that is actually more like a business which may exclude certain groups, “it’s more of a middle class, it will be a trendy coffee shop and that’s going to obviously stop a lot of people from coming in, the people that come there can’t afford to buy them, so you’ll have a group of people coming there, it won’t be just people with children and you can chill out, it’s a business.”
I visited my local one o’clock club and spoke with a group of women there about the service. They spoke with great passion about the importance of the one o’clock clubs in their lives. They described how the one o’clocks clubs were vital to creating a community; that through them they had made lifelong friends and had got to know their neighbours. They are “a way that you do actually, cohesively, join your community. Promoting community, strengthening communities is what one o’clock clubs is about,” one of the women explained. They also spoke of the well being that these places brought to them and their children. One woman cited a recent report which showed an increase in domestic violence because of the wet summer meaning people were couped up indoors to illustrate the important role of one o’clocks clubs.
Yet despite all their knowledge and commitment to the one o’clock clubs, Lambeth council, even in its co-operative phase, has not taken on board what they have to say. Speaking of the recent meetings where users could hear about the bids being made for the one o’clock clubs, one woman said, “we just listened to them tell us what they would do. We don’t feel that they do listen to us, because we live near Ruskin park, but they just shut it down, they didn’t listen to us at all, we weren’t given any notice, we were just told it’s going to shut in one week. It’s because they can’t quantify the value and the impact it’s having on the children, if they were to come and see the children interacting with each other, playing, exploring, discovering, and the opportunities that they have that they don’t get in your home – it’s because they don’t value that…” Instead, the women told me, the one o’clock club is now being rented out as offices.
The women’s sense of ownership, community, and empowerment that they feel for their one o’clock clubs shows up the “co-operative council” as being utterly redundant. The council are enforcing their “co-operative” model onto a community that already exemplifies many of the characteristics that the “co-operative council” claim to promote. And it is their model that is threatening the community of the one o’clock clubs as they are closed down or become like a business, as Forsyth described.
Lambeth libraries were another service that the council decided to restructure along their “co-operative” principles. A libraries consultation was set up earlier in the year encouraging residents to “have your say”. Councillor Florence Nosegbe described the model that is now being put in place: “every individual library has been allocated a budget and how that budget will be spent will be decided by local residents, friends of libraries groups and the ward councillors. It’s about being quite bold to say that if you value that library and if you think these are the things that should be in that library we’re going to give you that flexibility to go ahead and spend that. So we’re in the stage where we’re co-designing and co-agreeing the budget with the libraries at the moment.” But as with the one o’clock clubs, users felt frustrated and ignored by Lambeth council’s process and the outcome.
Lisa Sheldon is a student who grew up using Lambeth libraries. “We didn’t have much money and 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 said she has little faith that Lambeth took her views into account. “The documents we were supposed to fill out were huge. It took me 2 hours to plough through it 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 with our libraries.” She explains that when the results of the consultation were announced they revealed that the majority of people did not want or were undecided about the “co-operative library” proposals, but the council ignored this and 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. The area has high levels of impoverishment – to tell people to enforce their own cuts on their library service is unforgivable. The council have been failing to invest in libraries and other services for years and now austerity and the co-op council are just yet more excuses to run our services down.”
As with the one o’clock clubs, Lambeth council’s imposition of “co-operation” fails to see the co-operation and community that is already there. As Sheldon explains, “the consultation spoke of creating ‘community hubs’ in libraries, 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. The staff play a particularly important role in this community, helping library users with their queries and comments despite often being very understaffed. I don’t understand how they can become much more co-operative than they already are, unless the council are proposing getting rid of mangers and creating a fairer pay system, which I somehow doubt.” As she points out to me, Lambeth council are completely re-defining the concept of co-operatives, for their plans are so far away from the true meaning and practice of the word – “they are bringing the term into disrepute!” she exclaims.
Lambeth council’s recent policies on “short-life” housing in the borough also shows its failure to understand co-operative values. Last July, the Cabinet made the decision to sell off “short life” properties, which had been people’s homes in some cases for up to 40 years. Many of these properties are run in housing co-operatives so the “co-operative council” is currently selling off housing co-operatives and breaking up long established communities. This will have the effect of of exacerbating the London housing crisis as yet more public housing is lost to the private sector and the occupants need to be rehoused. Private Eye has also shown that Lambeth council has spent at least £175,000 on bills for legal firm Devonshire.
Julian Hall, who has lived in his house for ten years, and has elderly neighbours who have lived there for 40 years, describes how the reality of Lambeth’s “co-operative council” has “fallen way short…These housing co-operatives have been here for 40 years now and that’s as old, well almost as old, as some of the councillors who are making these decisions that don’t really have a good grasp of the issue really historically.” He explains how Lambeth council have failed to engage with the residents despite their “co-operative” claims, “it’s frustrating, I find the situation we’re in a little bit surreal because on a personal level the attachment I’ve made to my house and my community, I find it hard to get my head around it, but I have been campaigning since February, linking up with other co-ops. I just find it frustrating that it’s taken so long and been so hard to get people around the table to engage in a co-operative solution given the rhetoric, it’s dismay I suppose.”
The housing co-operatives have grouped together into a “Super Co-op” in order to oppose the council’s sell-off of public housing and to propose a truly co-operative solution under the name of Lambeth United Housing Co-op. They have gained the support of Lambeth MP Kate Hoey and even some of Lambeth Council’s own “Co-operative council commissioners”, one of whom has stated, “I think it is important that they understand how to deal with legitimate challenges such as the ones you have raised. If they do not understand how to do this, there will be no hope for the development of a Cooperative Council.” Another commissioner said, “Next time I see Steve, I am going to encourage him to get a grip on matters before the project loses its credibility.”
But has this project ever had any credibility? Steve Reed’s “co-operative council” has failed to live up to its rhetoric of shifting power to communities. From the council’s actions one wonders whether this was ever really their intention or whether they were simply seduced by their own rhetoric. As users of libraries and one o’clock clubs and housing co-operative members explained, their experience has seen the council reject their input and continue with a top-down power structure, closing down or selling off public resources in the name of empowerment. Cllr Nosegbe’s comment is revealing, “the key driving force behind that [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 Sheldon summed it up, “The only co-operation going on here is with the national government’s cuts.”
Councillor Steve Reed and Councillor Lib Peck did not respond to my telephone calls, emails, or tweets – raising concerns about their understanding of accountability by their unwillingness to discuss their project.