Islington, despite its reputation for affluence, is the eighth poorest local authority in the country, and one of the most unequal. One side of a street is concrete council estate, the other is Grecian columns and wisteria: the haves and the have-nots living cheek by jowl. The argument against inequality advanced in Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level: Why Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, resonates loudly here. That is why we were delighted when Professor Wilkinson agreed to chair The Islington Fairness Commission, which we have established to take a long, hard look at what we can do to close the gap in our borough. Over a hundred local residents turned up at the Commission’s first meeting and then even more for the second: this is an agenda for which there is clearly public appetite. We need to harness this momentum. One businessman, as a result of what he heard at the first meeting, announced that he would start an internship scheme at his company. Small steps, maybe, but Labour in Islington feels that it is really on to something.
The Commission’s remit is to explore every lever a local authority has in its possession to reduce inequality in the borough and to hardwire the council so that every action it takes is based on fairness and improving the lives of those who are least well off. The act of forming the Commission and spreading the word about it has already raised awareness of the scale and nature of the persistent poverty in our borough. When I tell better off friends who live locally that Islington is the eighth poorest place in the country, their first response is surprise, often followed by a willingness to volunteer and help make things better.
One of the Commission’s sessions is going to look at how we reduce the gap from the top down. As our local businessman and my friends’ reactions prove, there is more that those who are well off can offer, such as voluntary time, contacts and ways to break down the barriers that stop the less well off from accessing the wealth and the opportunities that they see all around them. As well as coming up with concrete policy proposals, the Commission hopes to invoke this civic spirit: doing the ‘Big Society’, not just talking about it.
This Commission must be more than a talking shop. The above ideas are good, but we need something radical for the Commission to really register and help turn around the life chances of more than a handful. One bold idea the Commission will discuss is the prospect of a Living Wage Islington – much easier said than done. Step one would have to mean the public sector in Islington getting its act together: not just paying all police, health and council staff a London living wage but all of these authorities’ sub-contractors as well. That means looking at supply chains and procurement. Then perhaps we could take the Commission out of the committee room and onto the street to campaign for a Living Wage Upper Street. And so on, until everyone in our borough gets the dignity of a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work. After all, that’s only fair, right?
The next meeting of The Islington Fairness Commission is at 7.30pm on November 2nd at the offices of Slaughter & May, One Bunhill Row, London, EC1Y 8YY. You can find out more about the commission here: www.islington.gov.uk/fairness
Guest post by Andy Hull, a Labour Councillor for Highbury West ward and Vice-Chair of The Islington Fairness Commission