Understanding how local authorities can have an impact on inequality and poverty
22 July 2015
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.
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:
The advantages to holding a commission include:
Holding a commission involves particular challenges:
Certain approaches resulting from commissions led to significant progress towards reducing inequality and poverty. The approaches that generated most progress are:
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.
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.
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.
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