Last night I went to a “speed dating” event
organised by Lambeth Council.
Before you start to think this was some
strange kind of matchmaking service for public sector singletons, I should
explain. The “dates” were between locals like myself who wanted to volunteer
for projects in their community, and organisations in need of volunteers.
Read more on Not much for the riot wombles at Lambeth volunteer speed dating…
On Wednesday night I was at Lambeth town hall in Brixton, south London, where around 150 protesters occupied the council chamber during a meeting, forcing councillors to leave.
The council meeting was to pass a budget that contained cuts of around ÂŁ79m over three years. Once the councillors had left (to hold a private meeting at which the budget was passed), the protesters declared a “people’s democracy” in which everyone could voice their concerns.
One of the many things that struck me during the protesters’ meeting was the unions’ reluctance to let the voluntary sector run services. When the protesters started talking about a council plan to let voluntary and community groups run the borough’s playgrounds, the reactions ranged from scorn to pity.
“The voluntary sector just can’t run our playgrounds, no matter how well-intentioned it is,” said one of the town hall occupiers. “It’s just not capable of doing it.”
Others took a more hostile approach, muttering loudly about voluntary groups “taking jobs” from the public sector.
I hadn’t realised until last night how much of a problem this could be for the sector. Charities are under pressure from both sides of the political spectrum: those on the right think they shouldn’t get state funding in the first place, and those on the left think that when they do they are undermining the public sector.
This could be a particular problem in Lambeth, where the council has a radical plan to become Britain’s first “co-operative council” in which services are provided by voluntary groups wherever possible.
But I’m sure it won’t be limited to Lambeth. Reluctance, or in some cases open hostility, from those in the public sector – particularly when their jobs are at risk – must be making life hard for voluntary groups across the country.
Read more on Why are the unions so hostile towards the voluntary sector?…
After a 28 per cent cut to the budget for local authorities was announced in the comprehensive spending review, David Cameron warned councils across the country not to cut funding for the voluntary sector first.
His concern, he has said on several occasions, is that some local authorities will “pull up the drawbridge” and protect their own staff by scrapping grants to charities.
But Lambeth Council leader Steve Reed set out a much more radical plan for saving money, in a speech at the launch of an Acevo report on personalisation last night. And the voluntary sector is at its core.
Lambeth is planning to become the first “co-operative council” in Britain and has been in talks about what this means for more than a year. Talks have become more urgent, however, since the council learned last month that of the ÂŁ80m it will have to save over the next five years, ÂŁ40m would have to come from next year’s budget.
So, here’s Reed’s plan. The council will set up pilot projects in which charities and community groups deliver public services. Over time, there will be more and more of these until a “tipping point” is reached and most of the council’s social services are being delivered in this way.
When this happens, the council will be a “service enabler” and a “support platform” that the voluntary groups delivering public services will be able to use when they need it. The council will no longer be a service provider.
It’s a big vision, and big questions about funding for the voluntary groups will need to be addressed. But if it works, it could provide a model for councils across the country and a lifeline for the thousands of charities threatened with closure by local council cuts.
And the biggest surprise? The Conservative Nick Hurd heaped praise on Lambeth’s Labour council at the event last night. “I want to congratulate Steve Reed for this really important work,” he said.
Reed responded:”It’s not the first time Hurd and I have shared a platform and said things that are so similar. This is starting to get worrying…”
Read more on Tory minister praises Labour council shock……
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 governmentâ€™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. â€śBig society is about rolling back the state, whereas this is about changing the role of the state,â€ť he said.
He was backed by fellow councillor Paul McGlone, who said: â€śBig society is people doing something for nothing, and we donâ€™t believe in that.â€ť
Both were keen to say that, despite the recent announcement that Lambeth would cut its voluntary sector funding for young peopleâ€™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?
Read more on Not so looney: Lambeth Council’s bid to become a co-operative could be taken up elsewhere…