Towards a Cooperative Capital

Council Leader Andrew Burns outlines the cooperative developments in Edinburgh as the United Nations celebrate International Day of Cooperatives.

The ‘UK Cooperatives Fortnight’ draws to a close this weekend, which is entirely fitting given today is the United Nations’ International Day of Cooperatives 2015.

The fortnight has provided an excellent opportunity to showcase how Edinburgh has been working with citizens and communities to encourage greater cooperation and collaboration.

As part of a wider programme of events, I was delighted to speak about the importance of cooperatives at an “Edinburgh Partnership Conference” last week. This was the first time that we have hosted an event as part of the annual Cooperatives Fortnight, which celebrates the economic and social impacts of the sector, as well as the cooperative potential of communities.

Following the elections in 2012, the Council’s Capital Coalition set out a clear vision to become a Cooperative Capital, where public services work better together, and where communities have more influence over the services they use. We pledged to be a Council that does things ‘with people’ rather than ‘to people’.

We have been working on this in a range of ways, such as encouraging specific initiatives in energy, housing, childcare and adult social care. And since May 2012, communities have helped to set up 14 co-ops, some of which have asked for and received Council backing. This is great news for local communities because it shows that people are feeling empowered and want to have a stronger say in the services they access.

An example of this can be seen in talks between the Council, Castle Rock Edinvar and students from the University of Edinburgh, which led to the Capital’s first student housing co-operative, which offers quality and affordable accommodation. The students initially approached the Council to talk about their ideas as they knew that we were keen to support this type of structure.

We all know that many communities feel disengaged from local democracy at the moment; Councils can seem like distant bureaucracies; and, as organisations, we are struggling to manage significant funding reductions just as local people are putting more and more demand on local services.

If Councils are going to meet this challenge, and if communities are going to thrive, then we all need to start doing things differently. We need to work together, in genuine and equal partnership with local people and organisations, to make the most of the strengths that lie in our communities. Most importantly, we must drive real innovation, with services shaped around the needs of local people.

We have numerous local examples of this taking place, such as the South East of Scotland energy switching project, which was funded by the Energy Savings Trust and helped communities to collectively buy power to get a better deal on energy bills. In Edinburgh, 116 switches took place, saving participating households an estimated total of £16,000 on their energy bills. Other examples include the Edinburgh Guarantee, the After School Clubs Cooperative Charter, the Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership Commission, the Tenant Participation Strategy and the Homelessness Prevention Implementation Plan.

And within the Council, transparency of decision-making has also improved with the introduction of web-casting, a petitions committee, revised scrutiny – with new governance, risk and best value oversight. The Council’s 2015-16 budget process has also benefitted, with proposals only finalised once three months of public engagement and consultation were carried out.

Cooperatives are simple to set up, easy to join and more effective than working alone. This type of working will help enable Edinburgh to continue to move towards its long-term objective to become a Cooperative Capital. I firmly believe that the cooperative principles of empowerment, equal partnership, and collective action offer a positive route not simply to survive through tough times, but to enable local communities to thrive, supported by relevant and meaningful local public services.

Indeed, Edinburgh is now seen as a leading centre for cooperative working, and we currently Chair the Cooperative Council Innovation Network (CCIN) – a collaboration between local authorities across the UK who are committed to finding better ways of working for, and with, local people for the benefit of their local community.

Now more than ever, I see Cooperative Councils being at the forefront of innovative partnership working across sectors, tackling the serious challenges that lie ahead together with local communities.

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