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The case for fairness commissions is growing

Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, launching York's Fairness Commission back in 2011.

Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, launching York’s fairness commission back in 2011.

Across the country in both urban and rural areas, local communities and families are experiencing increasing levels of poverty, greater inequality and less security in employment.

The consequences of welfare reforms, structural changes to both the public sector and industry, the growth in zero hours contracts and cuts to core public services are leaving an increasing number of people worse off and deeply worried about their and their children’s present and future.

Local authorities individually cannot change national government policies or shift economic trends, but they do have a responsibility and an opportunity to support those most in need in their areas; and to explain how national policy is impacting on people in their area. I believe that these are moral duties as well as pragmatic ones. Less poverty increases local economic activity, leads to better education and health outcomes and can make people feel better and contribute more. Accordingly, local government should consider a fairness and equality agenda as core to its leadership of place and placeshaping roles.

This is why over 20 local authorities have been involved with and, in many cases themselves set up, fairness commissions. Others are, and even more should be, considering similar initiatives as their ability to provide direct services to counter the impact of government driven cuts and wider policies is severely reduced. This is just one reason why the recent report from the New Economics Foundation (Nef) on Fairness Commissions is so timely.

It should be read by all local authority leaders and others concerned with the impact of increasing poverty and inequality. The report provides a useful and informative description of the approaches adopted and actions pursued as a result of commissions. It also offers some helpful advice on how to establish them and possible terms of reference and opus operandi as well as how they have helped to tackle inequality, poverty, pay day loans and the challenges of private sector rented accommodation.

There is both a case for fairness commissions to be closely identified with a local authority and for them to be independently set up. This has to be a matter of local judgement and in part will be dependent on local politics, the strength of the civil society, sources of funding and even the popular perception of the local authority. Whatever the role of a council, there is merit in any such commissions having the widest possible membership.

‘Given the levels of cuts which local authorities will be forced to make over the next few years, there could be a good case for fairness commissions to develop recommendations on criteria for making cutbacks, allocating resources to maximise impact and monitoring the effect of cuts’

Some commissions have focused primarily on what the local authority should and could do itself, while many have also sought to persuade other public agencies, the voluntary and community sector and businesses of the value of their interventions and actions. Local businesses and citizens need to be aware of the corrosive impact of poverty and inequality and how they can contribute to the wellbeing agenda.

The appointment of a high profile and independent chair (for example, in the case of York, the Archbishop of York) can have significant impact when they report and make recommendations, as well as holding the local authority and other stakeholders to account.

The Nef report strongly advises that commissions should involve a range of key stakeholders and must talk to and involve those people directly affected by the reasons for setting up the commission in the first place. Voluntary and community organisations, faith groups and local employers – especially small businesses – should most certainly be actively engaged.

Where local authorities are not inclined to establish fairness commissions or similar initiatives, civil society organisations could take the lead.

A local authority can and should always adopt the Living Wage (not simply the chancellor’s newly rebranded minimum wage) and require its contractors to do the same. And if it wishes to improve living standards and offset tax credit cuts, it should actively encourage all employers in a place to do the same as this will have both a social and an economic benefit.

Fairness commissions will inevitably have greater influence over government policy if they can base their findings and recommendations on evidence and draw on the experiences of other places. However, when addressing chronic poverty and especially child poverty, there is also room for emotional persuasion and passionate challenge to the causes of this wretchedness.

It is important, as the Nef report identifies, for a commission to be bespoke to a place and there is also a case for co-ordinated approaches across regions and sub-regions too. There may also be a strong local case for including issues such as housing and in particular to affordable social housing, education standards and focus, the skills agenda, access to credit, transport and access to work, and health outcomes. Given the current local (and indeed the government’s) interest in economic growth, there is even a case for linking a fairness commission to the growth, inward investment and employment agendas. Indeed, there could be a rationale for involving the local enterprise partnership.

Given the levels of cuts which local authorities will be forced to make over the next few years, there could be a good case for fairness commissions to develop recommendations on criteria for making cutbacks, allocating resources to maximise social and economic (and environmental) impact, and monitoring the effect of cuts. I am not suggesting local authority political leaders can or should outsource the hard decisions to a commission, but they could use it to strengthen decision-making and accountability.

A local authority considering setting up a fairness commission should always do so in the context of its wider goals. And in that light, it may wish to do something a little different from others to create more local interest and impact. Councils should always support voluntary and community groups working directly with those hardest hit and marginalised by austerity, poverty and inequality. They should also support, while always acting within the law, local campaigns challenging social and economic policies and programmes that adversely affect the wellbeing of local people.

The Nef report is a good source of ideas and experience. It should also be a call to arms for those local authorities which have not yet considered setting up fairness commissions and who want to support their communities in the austerity storm.

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