Don’t be surprised if you read through the reports on Conservative manifesto policies and get a sudden sense of deja-vu. ‘Mutualism? Public sector co-ops? Collective strength? Where have I heard it all before?’, you might think. Well, that would be almost exactly one month ago, when Lambeth Labour launched its plans for the ‘John Lewis’ council amid much publicity. The Tories and Labour seem to be swapping policies around like FA Cup player stickers at the moment. ‘Mutualism’ might just become one of the buzzwords of the election and Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth Council, is the man fronting the Labour brand.
Reed has one hell of a job. Lambeth is the second largest inner London borough and the 19th most deprived borough in England. But he is experienced – he has been a councillor of Brixton Hill for twelve years – and he is confident about his plans to improve the area. Let’s start with the John Lewis council, or the ‘cooperative council’, as he prefers to term it. This was launched as a creative solution to the inevitable cuts to all council funding after the election. “Councils are generally working on the assumption that it will be about 15-20%, which is a lot of money. When you’re facing cuts like that, there is only a limited number of things you can do.” The Tories have gone for the ‘easy Council’ in Barnet, with bogstandard services to all and the possiblity to top-up if you have the money. That doesn’t seem fair on those who are most needy and yet most unable to pay.
Reed believes he has found a better way: involving people in the running of their services with the possibility of financial recompense later on. He cites some co-operative schemes already running in Lambeth – the Lilian Baylis community centre and Freshview, which provides resources to clear derelict land and has allowed residents in Josephine Avenue to set up their own community garden. “It works really well. People have a real sense of ownership and people sometimes for the first time know the names of their neighbours. All of that for a lower cost than if the council had come in and done it itself without those other benefits.” Reed believes that if the same values are applied more widely across the borough, there will also be better services and “more community empowerment” costing less money. His future plans include community trust schools, “where the community has an ongoing relationship with the school as an alternative to the academy model.”
Co-operative intentions haven’t always worked in Lambeth, as the Lambeth Living experience has proved. I put to him that it could become a way of passing on accountability; “It’s not passing the buck at all”, Reed insists. “It’s not the case that people have not wanted this. We could do a Freshview every week there is so much demand.” What happens if the co-operative services start to fail? At what point does the council step in? “What we must never do is de-professionalise services. If for instance any school under whatever form of ownership sinks below a minimum standard then it will remain the right of the local authority to step in. That’s very important, because you can’t allow people to have a sub-standard education.”
The John Lewis council still has a way to go in a very short space of time. First, a commission of experts and users will publish a white paper and identify areas to pilot the model. Part of that will be a public consultation, although Reed is cagey on exactly when it will take place – @Jason_Cobb blogged today that it will be after the election, which means that voters won’t know exactly what they’re voting for in May. “We’d want the commission to come back with the first set of proposals by July so that we can roll them out from September. We’ll learn from the pilots and be able to apply them more widely to other areas.”
Funnily enough, the area where Reed admits to the most problems during his Lambeth tenure is where an ALMO – a semi-cooperative model – is in charge: housing. He doesn’t blame the cooperative model for the problems and, of course, he does his best to take the blame off Labour.”There were already deep-rooted problems to do with the management of the housing service that go back years. Then the new IT system for Lambeth Living was implemented badly, so a lot of the data about leaseholders, vacant homes and repairs suddenly were no longer on the data systems. The work for that data system was done under the Liberal Democrats. The IT system has now been sorted out.”
Reed admits it’s a big challenge to improve housing even with the IT problem fixed, but is confident enough to say it will be sorted within 18-24 months: “At the moment 10,000 of the ca. 30,000 council homes don’t meet minimum government standards. We’re due a quarter of a billion pounds from the government to bring it all up to minimum standards. Then there’s the other side of the challenge, which is giving tenants a better day-to-day service. That means better repairs, re-letting vacant homes faster, and issuing bills to leaseholders accurately and on time.” An admission that Lambeth Living hasn’t gone quite as planned is implicit in the Lambeth Labour manifesto, giving the ALMO 12 months to improve or else.
It is difficult to interview any politician in the run-up to the election. Reed was certainly in campaign mode – the implication was often that Labour can do no wrong and it’s all the fault of the Lib Dems. Having said that, he is articulate and sure of his argument. The debate about to be unleashed on co-operative government could change the way we engage in local government. It doesn’t seem quite right that we are unlikely to have any idea what it will really look like until after the election, but who knows, Lambeth could be at the start of something exciting.