Andrew Burns: Cooperative partnerships help communities thrive

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The UK Cooperatives Fortnight draws to a close this weekend, culminating with Saturday, July 4 being the 2015 International Day of Cooperatives. The fortnight has provided an excellent opportunity to showcase how Edinburgh has been working with citizens and communities to encourage greater collaboration.

I was delighted to speak about 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 initiatives in energy, housing, childcare and adult social care. And since May 2012, communities have set up 14 co-ops, some of which have asked for and received council backing.

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.

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 funding reductions.

If councils are going to meet this challenge, and if communities are going to thrive, then 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. .

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 after three months of public engagement and consultation.

Cooperatives are simple to set up, easy to join and more effective than working alone. 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 communities to thrive.

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.

Now more than ever, I see cooperative councils tackling the serious challenges that lie ahead.

Councillor Andrew Burns is leader, City of Edinburgh Council