Developing Cooperative Councils

20140614_154829(1)In my role as Scottish Labour’s Local Government spokesperson, I was recently asked to contribute to a publication by the Cooperative Party on the subject of cooperative councils.

The article, which can be read here, is a statement of Scottish Labour’s ambition to re-empower local government and local communities to act together in the common interests.

We start from a position where, in recent years, local government in Scotland has faced mounting pressure on its ability to deliver the services we all rely on in our day-to-day lives. Rather that relieve this pressure, I believe that the policies of the UK and Scottish governments have exacerbated the situation.

Over the last seven years, we have seen a prolonged period of centralisation where local accountability and decision-making has been eroded.  The impact of cuts and the regressive nature of the council tax freeze have been well documented and people on low and modest incomes are now experiencing service reductions and the introduction of charges for services that used to be free.

Increases in fuel and energy costs, the increasing number of older people needing social care, the impact of climate change on infrastructure and the increase in poverty caused by the UK Government’s reshaping of welfare have all put the provision of services under strain.  Meanwhile, the loss of 40,000 staff has impacted on our councils’ ability to cope with existing demand.

In response to the current situation, Labour has set about developing an alternative vision through the work of our Devolution Commission – Powers for a Purpose.

We envisage a situation where the Scottish Parliament focuses on national priorities and setting the legislative framework rather than interfering in the day-to-day delivery of services.

The Commission’s final report sets out an empowering agenda that would see a transfer of powers from both a UK and Scottish level to enable councils to make the best use of available resources.

This would, for example, enable councils to develop responses to specific local circumstances in areas such as skills and training and housing supply.

At the same time, the commission proposes to tackle underfunding of local government.  The time is right for a rational discussion involving all parties to find a sustainable future for local government finance.  The Scottish Government’s preferred approach of a local income tax has been widely discredited. We need to find a way forward that strikes the right balance  between central funding and the ability of councils and communities to access alternative income streams to pursue locally desirable priorities.

Cooperative values have a significant role in delivering Labour’s vision for local government by supporting innovation and new ideas to make the most of resources that are underused in our communities. The important distinction is that cooperative approaches are focused on tackling inequality and regenerating communities as opposed to generating profit.

Labour councillors across Scotland are already pursuing this agenda. Both Glasgow and Edinburgh have established cooperative development units tasked with supporting new initiatives.

Interesting work in Glasgow involving credit unions is demonstrating the potential of this approach to challenging poverty while in Edinburgh initiatives in the fields of childcare, social work and renewable energy are expanding.

Local authorities need to embrace the cooperative approach if such initiatives are to be successful.  A key aspect of this is ensuring that community organisations are involved from the earliest stages of planning and development so that local needs are at the heart of service delivery.

In addition to involving communities more closely with decision-making, a cooperative approach is also beneficial to workers.  One of the attractions in promoting a cooperative approach is the potential to motivate employees to feel secure in their work, to influence the services or company they are working for and to benefit from success.

It is clear that we need to reassess the relationship between central and local government to reverse the centralisation that has occurred in recent years.  A Labour led Scottish Government would implement the findings of the Devolution Commission to build capacity and knowledge across local government and our communities to make the most of the talent and resources that are currently not being used to best effect.