Viewpoint: A National Fairness Convention: learning from local authority initiatives to tackle poverty and inequality

Julia Slay is Senior Researcher and Social Policy Programme Co-ordinator at NEF (New Economics Foundation). NEF are hosting a National Fairness Convention on June 18th to bring together those who have set up Fairness Commissions (and other local government initiatives with similar aims), with those who want to learn from their experiences. 

What can councils do when faced with rapidly shrinking budgets, a growing burden of need on local services, and a mandate to shift towards Localism? One of the common axioms following the 2010 election was ‘never waste a good crisis’. Leaders in local government were urged to use the austerity measures as an opportunity to re-think their priorities, to innovate, and completely reconceptualise the role of local government. A huge raft of responses to austerity measures have been found across local government, from outsourcing of services and ‘Easy Councils’ to community budgeting and co-operative councils.
One initiative that has been steadily growing has been the Fairness Commissions: initially started in Islington to make the borough a fairer place, now twelve other areas have launched their own commissions, with Thurrock being the most recent. There is certainly growing momentum behind the movement and the Commissions have recently been featured in two other reports, from the LGiU and the LGA.
Their aim is to make fairness a core concept in local decision making, and to take practical action to tackle poverty and reduce inequalities. Bold ambitions indeed, but how does this work in practice? What can local authorities actually do in the face of shrinking budgets and growing need?
Among the commissions, a huge variety of policies have emerged. Paying a living wage has been the central pillar of the Commissions, and some have gone further, introducing pay ratios between the top and bottom pay levels within the council. Innovative work has been done in Newham, Tower Hamlets and Islington on improving conditions for private tenants and investing in social housing to tackle inequalities. Many Commissions have taken steps to tackle payday loan companies, and to promote more affordable finance options for residents, such as credit unions. Some have invested in extending childcare, and others have built stronger partnerships with local businesses to try and improve the job and training opportunities for citizens.
At NEF, we’ve been interested how these policies and actions are making a difference to local people; how effective commissions have been at understanding the priorities and needs of citizens; and how far the framework of the commissions can be used by other areas seeking to tackle poverty and inequality. We are hosting a National Fairness Convention on June 18th to bring together those who have set up commissions and been implementing new policies as a result, with those who want to learn from their experiences. This won’t be limited to the Fairness Commissions, but other local government initiatives with similar aims – such as the Social Inclusion task force and Equality Commission.
If you’re interested in learning from the action that has been taken by the Commissions, and other similar initiatives, click here to sign up for the Convention on the 18th of June. Confirmed speakers include Richard Wilkinson (co-author of the Spirit Level) and a number of councillors who have been leading Fairness Commissions across the country. There will also be two opportunities to join practical workshops where those involved in implementing the policies will be sharing their insight on a range of themes, including: housing, pay and income; social security and employment.
As local and national elections loom in the coming year, this will be an opportune time to reflect and learn on what action can be taken at a local level, to connect with others who have similar objectives and to understand how poverty and inequality can be tackled by councils and their partners.
The convention is being organised by NEF, with generous support from the Trust for London and is being hosted by Islington Council.

You can read LGiU’s briefing on Fairness Commissions here, published 13 August 2013.