Down here in the former LB Leninspart on Thames we've seen a fair few political fashions come and go (Ted Knight anyone? Linda Bellos?). Sandinista and ANC flags once graced the Town Hall. Back in the 1980s I returned some overpaid Housing Benefit and got a letter back starting ," The People of Lambeth thank you...". There are people a few years older than me who swear it used to be possible to get paid a day's wages to go on strike if you worked for Lambeth - as long as it was a strike against something Ted Knight disapproved of. And that's just a taster of the directly political stuff - I won't go into the tales of former senior officers in the Housing Department making porn films in the now closed Town Hall social club after hours. Nor the homelessness funding crisis enlivened by bailiffs arrive to confiscate council property because finance hadn't managed to pay the B&B bills of the homeless families they were supposedly assessing.
But for the past few years they've all been really moderate and well behaved down in the Council Chamber in Brixton which, to seasoned observers like myself, has frankly been something of a disappointment.
So imagine my excitement when news of Lambeth becoming the 'John Lewis Co-operative Council' reached my ears at the beginning of the year. This was the model that would take on the evil 'Easy Council' of Brent and win back the people to the Labour banner! Henceforth local services would be mutual rather than municipal, co-operative rather than Council.
At first this seemed just a slogan, but now we have a 52 page first stage blueprint. It's the New Labour version of the Big Society, so it may be worth those of you unlucky enough to live elsewhere taking a glance. It aims, after all, to prefigure a 'new relationship between citizens, community and public sector'. Big stuff, at least potentially. Big enough to have its own bloomin' wiki no less.
Who on the left could be against this ? Who could argue - at the level of principle - for the continuation of state provision over community and employee controlled models? Not me. Without quite adopting AVPS's starry eyed account of the world I'd like to see, or Boffy's relentless co-operative enthusiasm, I do fundamentally believe that ordinary people should run the world, and that politics should be, in part at least, about searching for new ways in which this hope might be realised. I just understand that this might, just might, still be via some form of state provision or control at times, especially at a local level. Letting individual schools control their own admissions, for instance, just ruins things for everyone else.
But as I struggle through the limpid Web2.0/sub-Californian management prose of the so called 'white paper' put out by Lambeth Council, three thoughts keep coming back to me.
Firstly, this is a reform for austerity just as much as the Big Society is supposed to be. There's going to be less money around, savings are going to have to be made and giving co-ops control over certain services is a kind of mutualist gloss on hard choices which would have had to be faced anyway. This fact is acknowledged, but softened by a touching faith in the potential for a Total Place approach to realise savings. Well, I'm all for only processing a piece of paper once and for the NHS to share Social Services offices. I just don't think turning Council services over to potentially scores of separate organisations, co-operative or otherwise, is a particularly promising way to start. So the idea may yet share many of the Big Society's assumed problems in basically boiling down to people being asked to take on services for nowt, or near to nowt, or just lose them completely.
Secondly, this really is just a gloss on the existing default model of the commissioner state:
Strategic commissioning goals would be agreed by a single senior management team drawn from across the borough’s public services, although this group could include members of the private and voluntary sectors as appropriate. The risk of professional capture and bureaucratic expansion would be contained through collective agreement and challenge by these senior commissioning managers. TheNote the local councillors and residents are holding the delivery agencies - i.e. the mutuals and co-ops - to account, not the strategic commissioners. How very modern: the monkey is fully and transparently accountable whilst the organ grinder sits untroubled.
commissioning process would explicitly involve local political leadership through the council’s Cabinet and this will ensure direct and clear political accountability for all strategic decision-making of a much broader scope than at present. Further, this would be augmented by radically enhancing the role of scrutiny by local councillors and residents to hold delivery agencies to account for their operational effectiveness. This new group would be responsible for all strategic commissioning decisions in the borough which would then be made real by a range of delivery agencies" (emphasis in the orginal)
Lastly, though, the big thing is the paper seems to only use the word 'procurement' once. Commissioners don't just wave their hands and magically commission - someone has to go out and procure. Don't take my word for it, go check the EU regulations that Mr.Mandelson was so keen to push through before being enobled. Now, personally, I think this is classic Emperors New Clothes territory: the traditional alledgedly sclerotic local government bureaucracy that these marketised relationships were supposed to destroy have been replaced by......a vast and increasingly sclerotic procurement bureaucracy disproportionately based on various forms of competitive tendering.
But you don't have to necessarily agree with that observation to accept my main point - regular competitive procurement exercises are incompatible with giving local people organised into co-ops and mutuals control over the services which affect them. I mean, they might lose the tender, might they not? & some would say this is a good thing if their services weren't up to much, or the tender criteria were simply too difficult for them to meet on - to pick a factor entirely at random - price.
The basic question is: if co-ops are so great - and they could be, I really think they could - how do we protect them from the circling sharks like Capita? I can't find an answer in our local white paper...