Beyond the ‘dented shield’
On taking power in May 2010 after years in the wilderness, Islington’s Labour group, supported by the wider party membership, embarked on a groundbreaking process, fulfilling our manifesto pledge to establish the first Fairness Commission.
Despite our sunblushed tomatoes and polenta reputation, Islington is also home to real deprivation. We are the 14th most deprived local authority area in England. Half our kids grow up in child poverty and half our older people live in fuel poverty. We have the third highest crime rate in London and the highest male suicide rate in London. We have 335 families living in severe overcrowding and a seven-year gap in life expectancy between men in the highest income group and those in the lowest income group.
This poverty scars our borough, and 13 years of Labour investment in government in Westminster hadn’t shifted the dial, in no small part down to the indolence and apathy of the ruling Lib Dems on the council.
Inspired by The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, we decided that the response to the shocking realities outlined above wasn’t merely to try to tackle poverty, but rather to tackle inequality, creating a fairer Islington that would be to the benefit of all residents.
The commission was made up of 20 cross-sector, cross-party commissioners, co-chaired by Professor Richard Wilkinson and my councillor colleague Andy Hull. Its brief was to be radical but realistic. All commissioners knew that our recommendations would shape Islington’s agenda, strategy and budget for four years, so we had to get it right. Empty promising and posturing wouldn’t do the job; we needed a plan we could put into practice.
We held a year-long consultation process consisting of seven public meetings attended by hundreds of residents. There was also a huge volume of written submissions and evidence which were analysed and collated by cross-departmental problem-solving team.
At the end of this process we pulled together a report setting out our 19 wide-ranging key recommendations, including a three-pronged strategy to tackle debt and payday lenders, a literacy drive, building more affordable homes and some profound action on employment and skills. Have a look at our website to see the full list.
We intend to deliver and expect to be held to account, with a public progress report to our communities committee every six months and a public progress report to full council every 12 months.
We have already seen the fruit of our commission. We became the first council to achieve living wage employer status, on pay ratios we have cut the pay of our chief executive by £50k, brought our cleaning staff back in-house, and opened a Citizens Advice Bureau on Upper Street which is used by 1,000 people a month. And we know we can do more.
The Islington Fairness Commission has been hugely influential, with others setting up similar bodies, including Newcastle, Liverpool and Leicester. I think part of the reason for this is that many Labour councils and councillors understand that simply ‘passporting’ central government cuts by salami-slicing budgets abrogates responsibility, and will increase apathy and disengagement – and cost them votes. Why should a Labour council take responsibility for the catastrophic decisions taken at Whitehall by Tory ministers? We need to tell our own story.
The traditional ‘dented shield’ approach of Labour councils with a Tory government won’t do it this time. I believe that if a Labour council gets out of the town hall, and engages the whole community in agreeing a vision for how services should be delivered fairly in a context of cuts, then it will have a clear roadmap for its term of office. Such a vision is crucial in telling the story of the priorities of the council to the community, providing a ‘lens’ to explain how and why difficult decisions are made, with clear policy ‘totems’ symbolising this vision.
Please drop me a line if you want to find out more about the Islington Fairness Commission or talk about setting up a Fairness Commission in your area.
Joe Caluori is a councillor in the London borough of Islington. He tweets @Croslandite