Glasgow Council is changing the way it works internally and with external organisations to make a greater difference to city life.
By supporting cooperatives and social enterprises, and devolving power to local people, it is finding effective and sustainable new ways of rising to economic and social challenges.
Like all UK city councils, Glasgow faced budget cuts, changing demographics, and increasingly complex service needs. Despite years focusing on helping people on long-term benefits and improving health inequality, progress had not been fast enough. Glasgow recognised removing this economic drag on the city demanded a different approach. It set out to find new ways of reaching those most in need and doing more with limited funds.
Glasgow had experience working in a cooperative way, so rather than simply delivering services it worked with enterprises and communities to co-create services designed around citizens' needs. The city was also already home to many cooperative businesses, whose social objectives made them ideal partners. Convinced that wider adoption of this approach was the best way to achieve both better services and better value, Glasgow made a commitment to become a ‘cooperative city’ in 2012.
Research by the Cooperative Development Unit (CDU), set up to deliver the project's action plan, identified two primary objectives: develop a new culture of partnership within the council, and help the city's cooperative sector thrive and grow through easier access to funding and networking. The proposal led to the council establishing a £500,000 annual budget, and the expansion of the CDU. It also established a cross-functional group of ‘cooperative champions’, who identify cooperative opportunities and develop links within and beyond the council.
The council's investment also enabled the Cooperative Glasgow Business Development Fund to be set up. This gives transformational business development grants to cooperatives, mutuals, social enterprises, and council departments. Since 2013, grants totalling £696,881 have been awarded to 34 existing cooperatives and 11 startups.
Glasgow People's Energy is another flagship initiative showing the cooperative service delivery model in action. Run by the council with two social enterprises, this impartial and ethical energy advice and switching service saved businesses, social enterprises, and charities a total of £181,000 in its first eight months. The idea is that profits generated through this scheme's introductory fees from energy suppliers are used to reduce dependency on council grants by the city's existing fuel poverty advice service. After three years in operation, it is hoped a domestic switching service will be established for all Glasgow tenants and residents.
Putting cooperative values at the heart of service development and delivery has resulted in a wide range of initiatives across the city. Citizens can now see how decisions are made by watching live streaming of council meetings. They can influence how community budgets are spent by voting online. Since 2012, over 1,000 long-term unemployed residents secured jobs in infrastructure projects thanks to a new community benefit approach to purchasing. Meanwhile, hundreds of people with no or low income are benefiting from FareShare Glasgow, a food redistribution project run by the council in partnership with a homelessness social enterprise. Cooperative Glasgow achieved a lot in its first three years. This is partly because the city had a well-established cooperative sector and strong political commitment. Its success is a testament to the approach of the CDU.
From the start, the team recognised having funding isn't everything, and other factors are equally important: consistent messaging, finding
common goals with other departments, and making smart, creative use of all council assets, from its people to its buildings. As with any project of this scale, Cooperative Glasgow has had its challenges. Establishing new kinds of partnerships with external organisations tested existing legal procedures and financially the public sector is naturally risk averse, which can inhibit the implementation of new ideas. It also recognised traditional business support didn't include promotion of the cooperative business model: this was addressed by running workshops. The council intends to give Cooperative Glasgow the time it needs - and to future proof the project against elections and funding issues.
Cooperative values have already been put at the heart of the city's new long-term economic strategy, and an evaluation will take place