Last night I went to Lambeth town hall in London for the first of a series of public meetings by the council to discuss its plans to become a co-operative.
In practice, the plan means the council will launch a series of pilot projects in which local residents run public services, and will look favourably on other local voluntary and community groups that identify services they think they can run better than the council.
The 70 or so local residents that gathered in the crowded room to discuss the idea seemed keen. But more than one of them said the plan sounded very close to the government’s big society agenda – considered surprising since Lambeth council is Labour-controlled.
Council leader Steve Reed did his best to put some clear blue water between the council and the government. “Big society is about rolling back the state, whereas this is about changing the role of the state,” he said.
He was backed by fellow councillor Paul McGlone, who said: “Big society is people doing something for nothing, and we don’t believe in that.”
Both were keen to say that, despite the recent announcement that Lambeth would cut its voluntary sector funding for young people’s services by up to 35 per cent from January, the co-operative plan was not just about saving money. It was a better, and more cost-effective, way of providing services, they insisted.
Lambeth is a good place to pioneer the co-operative council model: there is already a strong voluntary sector locally, and a tradition of community activism.
But if the plan proves successful, might the coalition government look beyond party politics and encourage other local authorities to do the same?