Thursday, 18 November 2010

Is Mutuality privatisation by the back door? Co-operative Council Q and As - (KOV meeting update - Part 3b)

This post is a commentary and write-up from the KOV meeting that took place on 1st November at Vauxhall Gardens Community at which the Council Officer, Mike Wiltshire, was present to explain the purpose and end of the proposed co-operative Council for Lambeth.  The first post (which is basically the Council's elaboration of what the Commission have been reviewing) can be found here.  This post is a compendium of questions that were put forward by bemused Kennington, Oval, Vauxhall forum audience members (otherwise known as the Kennington Massive) to Lambeth Council about how the co-operative council might eventually appear.

Questions are often unclear and mumbly, and like in all public meetings, consist of the half-baked views of some quite strange people.  I've ruthlessly cut, summarised and de-waffled so that broad summaries are in single quotes, and direct quotes are in doubles...

Qn: 'I'm concerned... There was a lot of jargon....  You're consulting on things you should really be doing any way... You're looking at spending money on consultation on answers that should be relatively obvious...'

Mike Wiltshire:  'I wouldn't disagree that we should be doing this as a matter of course.  When we speak to people from different parts of the Borough, the ways they want to be consulted are different.  The point of this piece of work is to find the ways that people want to work.  Some prefer using area forums. Others want something more innovative eg. a local community group to come and manage a process.'

Questions: 'It would be useful to have more information about how this will run in practice and how we could contribute to the ideas about how it could be run... Could we hear about how local people get involved?' and 'We can organise collectively in neighbourhoods, but what does the council think we can personally and collectively contribute... What sort of interaction do you want between the public and yourselves?'

At that stage, you can see that the questions above (and more) concerned what a co-operative Council might look like, with all of these services effectively sub contracted-out, and poor Mr Wiltshire, who had suffered at the hands of the Kennington-massive was looking a bit drained, so Cllr Jane Edbrooke jumped to the rescue...

"These Co-op ideas were in our Labour manifesto.  This officer is taking a lot of questions, and I hope to come in with some answers... We're trying to say that we don't assume that services are run in the best way that they can be run.  We know that there's some great expertise out there.  We're saying that if you can run a service better, we'd like to catch that... It's about making people realise that services might not be run by the Council any more or that they can run them themselves...."
And then, controversially, Cllr Edbrooke went on to note that we have an excellent co-operative venture in our midst, at the heart of the Oval Ward...

"I know that people have been speaking to those that run the [Triangle] Adventure playground.  It's a controversial subject at the moment, but the playground is run very well.  How can we run that elsewhere?"
Controversial subject?!  Well, yes.  For those that don't regularly read this blog, you ought to know that Lambeth Council are currently taking legal action against the Triangle Association to evict them from the site, in order to make room for a school expansion.  So, that might not have been the best example to choose re. co-operative working!

But before anything further could be said, Mike Wiltshire grabbed the reigns again:

MW: 'At the moment, we provide youth services through youth clubs in the Borough.  The new process would be to review available funding and decommission the service if it's ineffective.  We'd then begin a new commission process and say to residents; "This is what's currently provided.  This is how it's working and these are the problems with it.  What expertise and what knowledge do you have to improve youth services, and how would you like youth services to operate in this area?"'

And then a question about whether any of our services are protected...?

Qn: At what point would the Council welcome applications?  Are there any no-go areas, or is any Council service open to that?

MW: Lambeth Council are currently drawing up a list of pilots to commence in February 2010.  The mechanisms of applying haven't been worked out in detail, but each year the council should be looking at specific service areas as part of the Council's budgeting cycle.  The last word from Steve Reed was that there are no no-go areas, including social care.  If you have an idea as to how a service can be delivered better, the Council want to hear about it...

And then somebody raised the question about whether the Emperor was wearing any clothes...

Qn:  What if the community don't step up, and they say "we'd like to see the Council continue to provide the service they have been providing.  We don't think, on any given matter, that we can do any better".

MW: 'Then that's fine.  That's part of the conversation."

But I wonder... is it fine?  If the community don't step up, and the Council don't have any money, then we're not going to have any local services.  Could we end up, I wonder, in a position where 3rd sector organisations (or, more likely, the private sector) run everything with just a thin layer of accountability connecting them with the Council?  I'm astonished that this move is coming from a Labour Concil since I cannot see how it's any different from Conservative/Lib Dem central government policy.  Today's Financial Times notes Unison's position on public sector workers being given the "right to provide" by selling back services. "Unison, the health union, attacked the ideas as a route to 'backdoor privatisation', claiming big business was likely to take over mutuals that failed or move in as contracts were renewed".  Well, precisely.  Here's what I think will happen.  Lambeth Council will make all (or most) youth service (or whatever) employees redundant.  The employees will be invited to form not-for-profit mutuals and put together ad-hoc youth provision.  The on-the-ball types will form small organisations, sell their services back to the Council, but won't have to pay their workers anything like minimum wage, and will have to reduce their services to skeletal because the Council will end up under funding them.  If the mutuals fail to perform (or make a living), the Council will not be easily held responsible, but will re-tender and the service will privatise.  Naturally, larger providers will be preferred because they're better able to keep costs  low.  I hope I'm proved wrong.

Mike Wilkinson clarified that the move towards co-operative working is more complex for statutory services eg. education.  Non-statutory services such as arts, culture and sports services offer more co-operative flexibility.  One of the "big ideas" that the Commission undertook to review was "time banking".  Apparently, in Cardiff, you become involved in the local children's centre, health service or youth service and then, as a result of giving time, you accrue credits on discounts for leisure services, cinema and theatre, "so you can have a menu of rewards to choose from.".

Val Shawcross who was also present (not sure why, but we had no Hoey) stood to made a quick comment.  She acknowledged her membership of the Co-operative party, and added that she felt the word "mutuality" had been absent from the conversation. She added that the presentation had been wrapped up in traditional "officer style speak" about consultations (she was right there).  But then she amusingly noted, "There are lots of goods models of how people run things amongst themselves.  Some of them are officer models.  Greenwich Leisure, one of the most well known leisure providers in Lambeth was set up from amongst the staff of Greenwich Leisure Services department, and was set up as a co-operative..."

At that point, I couldn't believe my ears!  The second suggestion for a co-operative (after the Triangle, which Lambeth are trying to close) was Greenwich Leisure, who are not exactly flavour of the month at the moment.  A quick glance at their website reveals... the Astroturf in Kennington park is still not fixed.  The Onionbag was not happy, having bought their leisure card, only to find many GLL leisure centres closed.  It might not be GLL's fault, but leisure would not have been my first choice to illustrate how co-operativeness might work..

Val Shawcross finally added, "We've got some great models of co-operatives in Lambeth."

I think here that it might be worth highlighting a piece questioning the co-op that I glimpsed back in the Streatham Guardian in August.  I quote, "...Jeff Jeffers, chairman of Lambeth co-operative development agency, said of 49 co-ops formed in the borough in 1971, only three still existed."  I don't necessarily doubt Val's word, but we probably need to ask questions about longevity.  Perhaps 1971 is too far back, and institutions aren't meant to last that long.  Perhaps the co-op route is a reasonable option for short-term initiatives.  My fear is that co-operative groups and mutualisation is just privatisation by the back door.
I don't want to throw a spanner in the works.  I'm not against co-operative working or co-operative societies.  The Council may well be /opting in/ to a very positive model of working.  It would be great to have local people taking additional responsibility for the wellbeing of their communities, but...  I don't want the Co-op Council or Big Society rhetoric to prevent people campaigning against cuts.  I'm afraid that the word "co-operative" is being used to cover up a covert privatisation without even those who are passionately involved realising that they're on a hiding to nothing.  Take a look at the words of.the Chief Executive of the Co-op group, Peter Marks, who admitted to the Guardian last year that he was a capitalist...
"At heart I am a capitalist as we have seen that other systems don't work. But the trust in banks has gone. The Co-op was not deemed sexy - we were old-fashioned because we took deposits before loaning money. But old-fashioned is the new cool in banking."
With one breath, it seems that "old fashioned" is cool again, both in banking and in local authority government, but in the next breath (same Guardian article)...
"If another person says to me 'I can remember my granny's divi number', I could get arrested for physical violence.  That's old baggage, people are always looking back. We are a modern business now."
The question is, can Lambeth Council be "cool" and "old-fashioned" without "looking back" at "old baggage"?  Cam Lambeth be a modern co-operative Council, or will it end up ushering in a greater era of privatisation under the noses of an unsuspecting public, who think that co-operative means, well, co-operative.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Hilarious, thoughtful and conscientious.

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