Let’s build a more co-operative Croydon

 In Croydon, Speeches

This article was orginally published on the Croydon Citizen. It was first published on 18th March 2014 and can be found here.

There’s a growing number of co-operative councils across Britain. They are piloting new ways of running services that give local people a bigger say over the decisions that affect them. If Labour wins the council elections in May, Croydon could join them. So what might a co-operative Croydon look like?

Unemployment and the housing crisis are two of the biggest problems facing Croydon. We need to upgrade substandard housing, and we need more jobs. So why not bring the two together? London Youth runs a project in Lambeth called Build-It. The project trains unemployed youngsters in construction and decorating then gives them work bringing empty properties back into use. That project could easily be extended into Croydon. The council would need to commit to buying empty properties and to working with landlords, then Build-It would create jobs making the homes habitable and giving homeless families a place to live. The young people who are part of Build-It take the decisions about how it’s run and what it does. It’s a true co-operative effort between the council and the community.

In Brixton, the council helped regenerate Brixton Markets by working with a social enterprise that brought together landlords and local entrepreneurs. They offered small businesses three months rent-free in previously empty units in the market. If, after that period, they were making enough money, they moved on to pay rent. If they weren’t, they moved out and another business came in to have a go. What was once a half-empty market arcade became a thriving hub of micro-businesses bringing jobs and investment into the area. If that approach can work in Brixton, why can’t it work in parts of Croydon that would benefit from an entrepreneurial boost like the London Road or Thornton Heath?

Following the example of the Brixton Pound, which keeps money circulating in Brixton, Crystal Palace Transition Town and local traders want to develop their own local currency – the first in Croydon. Our council should be helping them with this as a way of supporting the thriving independent businesses that make Crystal Palace such a unique part of south London.

More and more households in Croydon are struggling with overstretched budgets. Oldham, a co-op council in the north of England, have set up a store that sells household essentials like fridges, cookers or washing machines without charging the extortionate interest rates that big retailers charge people who can’t afford to pay the full amount up front. This is a great way of making sure poorer households don’t end up paying more than richer ones.

In Edinburgh, the council is working with the community to set up a borough-wide childcare scheme. By increasing the number of people and organisations offering childcare, they aim to lower the cost to parents. Schools, play groups and voluntary organisations are all taking part. With child care one of the biggest costs facing young families this would be a real help to local parents who want to get back to work but worry about the cost of looking after their children.

There’s no reason, either, why Croydon can’t work with local residents and businesses to start generating low-cost energy to help cut household bills. This works perfectly well in Brixton where Brixton Solar Energy install solar panels on council-owned buildings that generate sustainable energy for local residents.

We have families in Croydon that are struggling with debt, but others that are skilled at managing their finances. Why not ask those with experience to become ‘debt buddies’ offering advice to struggling families? How about inviting our churches and mosques to join a project channelling information, support and mentoring to help unemployed people get back to work? Instead of the council telling older or disabled people what services they’re being allocated, why not extend the idea of personalised budgets much further so they are helped to choose the support they prefer instead of just getting what they’re given?

In education we could promote community-led schools on the model of Gonville Academy in Thornton Heath, then help them support each other, rather than handing our schools to national academy chains that lack any long-term commitment to the wider community here in Croydon. We could give council tenants control over their housing managers by electing housing boards, and parks trusts could give local communities a bigger say in how green spaces are managed. All of these examples of people-powered public services have proved their worth elsewhere, so why not in Croydon too?

There is so much more we could do to bring Croydonians together to use their own insights, creativity and local understanding to help solve the problems we face together as a community. It’s more efficient, more effective, and it makes communities stronger. If Labour wins the council elections in May they have committed to devolve power and decisions to our local communities. We already have a very co-operative community here in Croydon, now we need a council that’s ready to join in.