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Leading the fight for fairness

By Sarah Lyall, Researcher, Social Policy, New Economics Foundation.

The most intriguing developments in reducing inequality and poverty are happening in local, not national, government.

In Plymouth, as in much of the rest of UK, empty homes purchased as second properties or speculative investments are a growing problem – a waste of resources given the lack of available primary housing and a cause of deep resentment and fragmentation in communities. By setting up a Fairness Commission – which makes recommendations for reducing inequality and poverty – this problem was identified and is now being fixed.

Plymouth Council is working to end injustices caused by empty homes through a mix of advice, support and action. It prefers to work with owners to bring properties back into use voluntarily, but also has the ability to enforce sale or management of them. They are now sending a clear message that leaving a property empty is simply not an option.

Across the UK, since June 2010, local government has been supporting similar shifts, resulting in thousands more people receiving a living wage, boosted membership of credit unions, improved accessibility of advice services and changed practices in the private rental sector and payday loan market.

While Chancellor George Osborne’s recently announced national living wage falls short of actual Living Wage level, it is evidence that the activities of local government – in this case working with the Living Wage Foundation to implement the Living Wage incrementally – can impact national policy culture.

Twenty-three local councils have now set up their own Fairness Commissions, driving forward this renewed focus on the challenge of inequality and developing fresh solutions in partnership with residents and other local organisations.

The new report from New Economics Foundation describes the four approaches that achieved the most progress on reducing inequality and poverty:

  • Supporting social justice campaigns such as the Living Wage Campaign, Just Money, Sharkstoppers and Timewise.
  • Exposing and ending injustices, for example in housing, employment and debt.
  • Supporting collective activities in order to reduce the cost of living and encourage mutual support, for example by organising energy switches and supporting parent-led nurseries.
  • Opening up local services by improving the availability and accessibility of services, including childcare and welfare advice.

To reduce inequalities in labour market access and improve overall job quality, the Camden Equality Taskforce recommended that the council promote more opportunities for quality part-time and flexible employment.

Camden Council worked with Timewise Foundation, which lobbies employers on flexible employment, to achieve Timewise accreditation. Since then, within the first five months Camden Council has: advertised all jobs as open to part-time or flexible hours, unless there was a strong business case not to do so; granted 100% of requests for flexible hours; and trained its human resources team in flexible job design. In this period it provided guidance on flexible working to 11,000 businesses in the borough and developed a website to provide free job postings for local part-time jobs.

Fairness Commissions have helped pushed the issues of inequality and poverty onto the agenda, but the policies implemented as a result of this would have greater impact if introduced on a national level. For example, establishing a landlord register nationally could improve the standard of privately rented homes across the country.

The achievements of these commissions give local government a platform to campaign for this important national action.

Download the report here to discover more examples of inspiring work and for advice on holding a Fairness Commission.