In the face of severe spending cuts, many local authorities are struggling to tackle growing levels of inequality and poverty. Others are exploring fresh and participative approaches to improving the lives of their residents in difficult financial circumstances.

Over the last five years, Fairness Commissions and similar bodies were established in 23 places across the UK. Each commission set out to tackle inequality and poverty at a local level in a context of national government spending cuts.

Achievements of commissions to date include: raising thousands of people from minimum wage to living wage, exposing and limiting the activities of payday loan companies, boosting membership of credit unions, improving accessibility of advice services, and changing the practices of private landlords on tenancy agreements and housing quality.

What is a Fairness Commission?

Commissions usually follow a process similar to a parliamentary select committee. The commission hears from local people, gathers evidence, analyses it, and produces a report which makes recommendations to the local authority and its partners. They do not have to be called Fairness Commissions. Others used the language of equality (Camden Equality Taskforce), poverty (Greater Manchester Poverty Commission), and social inclusion (Birmingham Social Inclusion Process).

Our research identifies ten stages in the process of holding a local commission on inequality and poverty:

  1. Scope: Decide what and whom you are targeting with the commission.
  2. Language: Decide what to call the commission and define its purpose.
  3. Resource: Decide on a proportionate budget and allocation of staff time.
  4. Leadership: Invite commissioners to participate and appoint chairs.
  5. Communication: Start talking about the commission locally and invite people to participate.
  6. Participation: Gather evidence and solutions through a range of methods.
  7. Analysis: Develop recommendations based on the evidence and possible solutions.
  8. Recommendations: Make recommendations for change to the relevant organisations.
  9. Implementation: Put the recommendations into action.
  10. Evaluation: Monitor progress, measure change, and report on it.

The advantages to holding a commission include:

  • Providing an opportunity to speak to residents about the topics that most matter to them, such as wages and housing, and to bridge the gap between electoral and participative democracy;
  • Generating a mandate to tackle inequality and poverty for the local authority and its partners;
  • Developing a ‘total place’ approach, through which the local authority and its partners define shared goals and pool budgets;
  • Building fresh insights and developing initiatives that can lead to real change.

Holding a commission involves particular challenges:

  • Engaging businesses and keeping them involved in implementing recommendations (something that was difficult and time-consuming for a number of commissions);
  • Involving people on the lowest incomes, which the commission model of consultative meetings makes especially challenging.

Which approaches generated the most progress?

Certain approaches resulting from commissions led to significant progress towards reducing inequality and poverty. The approaches that generated most progress are:

  • 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;
  • Brokering and supporting collective activities in order to reduce the cost of living and encourage mutual support;
  • Improving local services, particularly the availability and accessibility of childcare and advice services.

Two approaches — focusing solely on local authority employment practices without putting pressure on other local employers to change their practices, too, and calling for policy reviews and needs assessments without making specific recommendations — did not achieve much progress.

Which achievements could galvanise national action?

The achievements of commissions give local councillors a platform to advocate for policy ideas that were implemented locally as part of commissions and would have the greatest impact if introduced on a national level. Such policies include: incentivising Living Wage employers, requiring companies to publish their pay ratio of highest to lowest earner, establishing a national landlord register to improve the standard of privately rented homes, offering free school meals for children, and investing in enterprise to create good jobs.

Recommendations

We recommend that local authorities run participative processes focusing on inequality and poverty, and apply the most effective approaches and innovations from existing commissions to their local areas.

With the potential for government to devolve more to regions in the form of particular budgets, administrative functions and decision-making powers, there is also scope for commissions to be held across larger areas to develop recommendations for regional institutions. By linking up regionally, local authorities have shown that they can speak with a louder, collective voice nationally. This can be used to make a stronger case for national government action on issues such as good job creation, private rentals standards, social housing, and the cost of credit.

Image credit: komunews via Flickr