Lambeth Mutual – the co-operative way?

Lambeth’s work with resident and voluntary led organisations to deliver local services is nothing new, located in a strong tradition built up over many years.

Our guest writer is Jim Dickson, cabinet member for finance and resources on Lambeth council

Lambeth’s work with resident and voluntary led organisations to deliver local services is nothing new. It is located in a strong tradition built up over many years by councils across the country of nurturing and encouraging community enterprise and involvement.

In that sense the Lambeth Labour administration’s promotion of a new “mutual model” for shaping services and relationships with residents, which has received a generous swath of recent media coverage, represents a degree of continuity with mainstream local authority practice. However a recent step change in Lambeth has pushed this co-operative approach to the fore. We are being driven by two very different facts of life at the frontline of the public sector.

First the positive insight that – assuming you’ve got basic management systems right – services are often at their most responsive when they are citizen-led. For instance that can mean residents shaping priorities by sitting on a management board or even more actively through tenant ownership co-ops which give them direct control.

And secondly the need to “manage austerity” means we must radically reassess how to deliver a range of key services as the public sector learns to get by on 15-20 per cent less money over the next 5 years of major retrenchment.

So just as the emerging ‘Easycouncil’ Tory model of no frills with top up payments provides one possible approach to financial scarcity, mutuality offers real potential as an alternative route map through future service dilemmas. So how might a council like Lambeth apply the mutual route map to the challenges of the next four years? There are at least three obvious components of the mutual approach which might be applied locally.

Where we look to test the market to find value for money service providers we need to ask is there an employee or resident ownership option which might use local know-how that we’ve overlooked up to now? Examples might include the staff in Surrey who took over community nursing services in 2006 or Greenwich Local Leisure which already runs pools and gyms in Lambeth.

Secondly, when looking at how we get the best use of our physical assets including libraries, leisure centres and schools, is there a third way – between council retention and private sector deals – which might provide value without loss of social amenity? Our Sports Action Zone project at the former Lillian Bayliss School in Kennington or the resident-run Bromley-by-Bow health centre in Tower Hamlets are trail blazers.

And finally if we need to change the specification of what we offer – under financial pressure – can we use the skills and experience of local residents to re-design and re-commission services, doing things more responsively and perhaps more cheaply than before? I believe we can tap into Lambeth’s highly active area forums and its developing participatory budgeting programme to make a big difference.

The values steering this approach – protection of the vulnerable, maintenance of social cohesion, community empowerment and value for money – contrast starkly with a stripped down minimal state, supplemented by the new version of Victorian philanthropy that appears to be on offer from the Tories. Without holding out false hope, it is vital this message isn’t lost amid the financial gloom in the run up to May 6th.

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