Yesterday Andy Hull from Islington Council addressed a meeting of Labour Party members describing why and how Islington set up a Fairness Commission and what effect it has had. A Fairness Commission is one our our ten pledges which Labour will deliver on if we take control of the city council in May.
Around 20 councils have now undertaken a Fairness Commission. A Commission was set up in Islington because it is now recognised by many, following the debate around the Spirit Level, that greater income equality produces better outcomes for everyone, not just those at the bottom of the scale. It was also a recognition that however difficult things are in terms of public spending at local level, it is still possible to act locally in ways that make things fairer. In common with Islington, Brighton and Hove has a diverse population income-wise with very different experiences of living in the city and very different expectations from life, and addressing these fundamental inequalities is something we as a local council should be setting as a high priority.
The commission itself in Islington was cross-party and cross-functional with only a small proportion of the panel from the council itself. A big effort was made to reach out to different types of people, particularly vulnerable people whose voices are often not heard in the political melee, like those with learning disabilities for example. The actions proposed by Fairness Commissions are different in each locality so it would be important not to try and pre-empt what the proposals might be.
In Islington, nineteen actions were proposed and have formed the basis of the council’s plans and spending priorities ever since. These include areas such as the living wage and wage equality, housing provision and energy efficiency. They also included setting up a citizens’ advice bureau, initiatives to get more children reading, and a giving and volunteer scheme which has raised over £2m and mobilised over 500 volunteers.
Difficult decisions had to be made. For example, the new citizen’s advice bureau (CAB) was established at the expense of the Green Living Centre, a popular resource providing information about environmentally-friendly living. Reluctantly the council had to conclude that a new CAB would make more of a difference (although the Green Living Centre still appears to be in operation). In Brighton and Hove we will undoubtedly be faced with similar choices.
In Hollingdean and Stanmer, which includes a high proportion of child poverty and low aspiration as well as two universities, educational and aspirational inequality is very keenly felt. The city has a high number of students and residents with graduate degrees alongside a lower than average proportion gaining five A-C level GCSE’s. I see educational inequality as a really big issue in this ward in particular and would be interested in following up any recommendations for giving more people better educational outcomes.
I’m also really interested in the fundraising and volunteer mobilisation achievements in Islington. Fundraising included involving some of the more elite and well-heeled local businesses and residents with which Islington is perhaps most associated. Comfortably-off older residents were, for example, encouraged to donate their winter fuel allowance. While Labour does not support a 6% increase in council tax, if those people who do support it were willing to contribute an equivalent amount on a voluntary basis, that could be the starting point for a generalised “community fund” which could really help. In terms of volunteers, the city sees a great deal of active citizenship and I feel that if this were better focused and directed, a lot could be done with it to benefit the city.