The next Labour government will face a double whammy of rising expectations, with less money for public services and welfare provision. If we want to protect people who rely most on public services, we will need to do differently with less. If we try and do more with less, we will fall flat on our faces. Different with less can work if we give more decision-making power to the people and communities who use those public services, because they have a direct interest in making sure services are as effective as possible. Whatever the amount of funding on offer, empowering people and their communities creates better outcomes. Labour councils around the country are already putting this idea into practice, and it offers a model that can be extended right across public services nationally.
Many council or housing association tenants are dissatisfied with the standard of housing management they live with. Repairs are done late and to a poor standard. Housing officers can be dismissive and slow to respond to requests for help. Anti-social neighbours are left unchallenged. These things happen because the tenants themselves have no direct control over the people providing the services. But this changes when tenants elect local boards that appoint the housing managers, or in cooperative housing schemes where everyone living on an estate has a share in owning it. Estates like Blenheim Gardens in Brixton which is run by an elected resident management organisation, or Coin Street Housing Cooperative on London’s South Bank, show that when tenants are in control, services improve faster.
As we grow older we rely more on social care and home help. For someone who’s lived their life independently it can be a frightening experience to suddenly be told who will come into your home and when, what you will eat, when you will be bathed, and even when you will go to the toilet. With care staff under intolerable pressure normal human interaction is reduced to a perfunctory minimum and the older person’s own preferences are barely considered. This is no way to treat someone towards the end of a lifetime of hard work and self-reliance. This situation can be turned round by setting a budget for the older person and letting them choose, with professional advice, the help and services they would prefer. Take this a step further and let people combine their budgets in ‘micro-mutuals’ of service users and you put real purchasing power in their hands, forcing providers to offer services that better meet their clients’ needs with higher standards of care and support tailored to each individual.
Some inner-city housing estates suffer high levels of violent youth crime. There are estates in parts of London where the majority of young people are involved in gangs that carry knives and guns and involve themselves in drug dealing, robbery and assaults. But there are also examples of initiatives that successfully steer young people away from harm. On the Myatts Field Estate in Brixton the community took action itself, using their own understanding of the problems in their own neighbourhood and making use of their own ability to reach out to the young people getting involved in gangs. They set up a range of activities including informal mentoring, sports, dance, cookery, even trips to other parts of London to open their young people’s eyes to the positive alternatives available to them. Over three years they got 80 young people out of gangs and steered their lives back on track – a rate of success dramatically more successful than the council’s own youth interventions despite having only a tiny fraction of the resources. This demonstrates the power of community leadership, so in Lambeth we are setting up a youth services trust owned by local people that will support each estate to identify and bring in the services and activities that will make a difference to their young people. This isn’t about turning amateurs into professionals, it’s about putting the professionals under the control of the people who live with the problem. There are safeguards to make sure no one section of the community can exclude any other, but instead of fighting the system to get the change they need the community can use their energy to fight the problem.
Public services become more effective when the people who use them are in charge. By shifting power to service users we create a partnership of equals that leads to genuine cooperation between providers and the people they serve. The result is better services and more resilient communities. Over twenty Labour councils are working together as part of the Cooperative Councils Network to pilot new approaches like these across all our services. By empowering people we can give them back the power to change their lives. We cannot continue locking vulnerable people into dependency by taking away their ability to influence the things that are done to them. We live in a highly diverse society, and we cannot meet such a complex pattern of need if we seek to control everything from the centre. But this agenda is not just about changing Britain, it’s also about winning back support for Labour. People want public services that meet their needs better, and they want more control over the decisions that affect their lives. Change is never easy, but if we refuse to change we will get stuck in a cycle of salami-slicing services that will leave people in despair. We recognise there is no bottomless pit of money – times are hard, and if we pretend otherwise people won’t vote for us. So we need to show we can do things better for less by putting the resources of the state under the control of the people who rely on it.
Lambeth was a by-word for what went wrong with Labour in the 1980s. Today Lambeth, alongside other Labour councils, is building a new agenda based on empowerment and cooperation that can help shape Labour’s renewal in the 2010s.