The big THING

What does it mean for Edinburgh to be Scotland’s first “co-operative council?

I’m just back from a very lively and well-attended session in the City Chambers about how Edinburgh can become a co-operative council.

It was Labour’s big idea in its manifesto and for the Labour-SNP Administration and for council leader, Andrew Burns personally, it is pitched as the signature initiative in the next five years.

There will be little dissent from the Greens as to the direction of travel.  The main thrust is very similar to the central theme of the Green manifesto: handing over influence, decentralising power, ending the “we know best” culture.  Labour successfully gave those ideas identity and communicated them more effectively than any other party.

It is a genuinely transformative and genuinely radical notion.  But will it translate into a transformative programme?

At today’s session it was frequently argued that there are already good examples of co-operative working in the city.  Of course, that is right and I also understand why this point is made.  Change is daunting and it is more palatable to suggest an incremental approach.  But the risk with that is that “co-operative” quickly becomes a label for anything that involves collaboration, participation or even consultation.  It may ease initial buy-in but only to a concept that is as debased as “stakeholder” and “partnership” have become.

Genuine transformation means something deeper: something which lets go and takes risk and is lumpy and messy.  The culture change comes bottom-up, not top-down, from the accumulation of projects that work and before long become the norm.  So at today’s session I argued for just such a bottom up approach.  Over the next year the city is to set up 4 exemplar projects – in child-care, housing, energy and social care.  Why stop there?  Why not challenge every head of service, every neighbourhood office to think about putting in place at least one co-operative venture? 

We are about to commission the city’s first stand-alone Gaelic school.  How radical can we be about the management model?  The contract for door-to-door collection of plastic, paper, glass and metal  will come to an end soon – can we look at how that might be different?  Community ownership of Easter Craiglockhart Hill or of Leith Waterworld?  A new community self-build approach to housing?  There are no shortages of opportunities to try, to learn from and to publicise.  These are the things which people will see and will start to challenge business-as-usual

As a Green councillor I’ll toast the successes and seek to learn from mistakes.  But what we all must avoid is co-operative aspirations getting diluted and debased.