Slashed central Government grants to local authorities mean council departments face between 25 and 40 per cent reductions in funding over the next four years.

Town halls up and down the land have scrabbled to find their own solutions, many hoping by ironing out backroom office inefficiency, council bean counters can balance the books without wielding the axe to frontline services or staff.

But it is widely acknowledged these cuts will not be withstood without service loss – 400 jobs are to go this year alone at Lambeth Council.

So what more radical steps can be taken to get better services for less money? Cue Lambeth’s Co-operative Council.

Plans for the “John Lewis Council” were unveiled by council leader Steve Reed in February, packaging it then as a way to empower communities and create cohesion within neighbourhoods.

But in light of the extensive central Government cuts the tack changed. The co-operative council model is now seen as the best way to negotiate the threat to public services.

But what exactly is it and how will it work?

In short, the council wants residents to have a bigger say in how services are run, and provide the manpower to run them.

Examples could include recycling projects, parks and community-led schools, in exchange for financial recompense – perhaps in the form of a council tax rebate, rent or leasehold reductions for people living in council properties, free or discounted leisure centre use, or reward points to buy products or local services.

Resident manpower is regarded as being cheaper – and potentially a better long-term solution – than staff on the council payroll.

But at the first public meeting last Thursday, residents raised concerns about what a co-operative council really means.

Many were worried they would be asked to do something for nothing, and in not employing professionals, standards could go down.

Jean Kerrigan, of Lambeth Tenants’ Council warned people could be asked to make “big personal sacrifices”.

But Councillor Reed said the co-operative model could not work in every area.

He said: “When you give more power, choice, and control to citizens you get much better services. It’s not about deprofessionalising the service, it’s about giving people more control over what professionals are doing.”

Other residents warned about a culture of “them and us” at the council, which could be hard to break. Many examples were given of council officers finding it hard to work closely with residents.

Glen Neill, who runs youth scheme the Palace Project, on the Palace Road estate in Streatham Hill – the very model of a community-run resource the council wants to implement more – said he had fought constantly with officers in his four years running the group.

He said: “Officers want to dictate and then let you participate. You have to really mean co-operative.

Unless you can change them and make them realise they are public officers and work for the people of Lambeth then this will get nowhere.”

Others spoke of how co-operatives had struggled in Lambeth before. Tenant management organisations had been criticised for costing too much, while Jeff Jeffers, chairman of Lambeth co-operative development agency, said of 49 co-ops formed in the borough in 1971, only three still existed.

He warned: “Small is not beautiful, small is death. Unless institutions are built this will be a flash in the pan.”

Councillor Jackie Meldrum, the council's deputy leader, admitted it was difficult to establish co-operatives in a borough with very transient communities.

She said: “It may well be the well-established residents who will do more to make them work.”

Conrad Hollingsworth, director of Lambeth Voluntary Action Council, an umbrella group for voluntary groups in Lambeth, faced with up to 35 per cent funding reductions from January, said: “Volunteering, and organising it, has to be paid for.”

Questions were also raised about how the co-operative council model differed from the big society mutual approach proposed by David Cameron’s Government.

Coun Reed said: “If the big society is a cover for cuts it is not fine by me.

"We will not be giving people burdens they don’t want. We are aren’t telling people what they will get, we are asking them what they want.”

Liberal Democrat opposition councillor Brian Palmer, who attended the meeting, said “the jury was out” on the proposals.

He said: “The problem for Lambeth Labour is that its own track record thus far has been to trample on the voluntary sector, isolate friends’ groups, marginalise tenant managed organisations and not be very co-operative to ideas that have not sprung fully-formed from New Labour headquarters.”

But Coun Reed’s final words as he concluded the meeting hit back to those who dismiss the co-operative as empty rhetoric.

He said: “One of the most important issues is how do we build to last?”


1.The award winning gang intervention X-it programme (now known as 2XL), where older young people were trained to act as mentors to help young people at risk of slipping into crime.

2. The Weir Link children’s centre, which saw residents of the Weir Road estate convert a disused launderette into a thriving community centre.

3. The Elmgreen School in West Norwood, the country’s first “parent promoted” secondary school, where parents took an active role in seeing the schools set up, then helped shape its ethos, curriculum and appointment of teachers.

4. The community freshview scheme where residents can call on support from the council’s resources, then help do the manual labour to transform an area, be it a piece of wasteland or street. It has been well received for its result and the sense of community it produces.


• Lambeth’s “biggest ever consultation” will end in October.

• The co-operative commission will then meet in November to create their report and proposals for pilot projects to be launched from Spring 2011.

• The proposals will be voted on by the council cabinet in December, before a further three-month consultation with residents on the chosen pilots.

Find out about the next meetings and how to give your opinion on what a cooperative council should include visit councildemocracy