Sunday, 3 March 2013

From page to practice. The work of Labour councillors delivering fairness in tough times.

Labour councillors and activists know that it is an understatement to say local government has had a raw deal from the coalition. Councils have seen their budgets slashed, with poorer areas losing out disproportionately. There are new risks built into local authority revenues via business rates retention. Localised council tax discount schemes and housing and welfare benefit changes will hit low-income households hard. For those who care about reducing hardship and poverty and who want to create fairer communities the landscape could not be tougher.

Against this challenging and bleak backdrop Labour councillors are doing their utmost to protect communities and secure progressive change. The living wage movement has taken hold in Labour local government. Labour councils across the country are introducing the living wage and those early adopters should be applauded. More councils will do so in the coming months, 
including my own in Leicester.

Commissions which bring together those who share our broad commitment to fairness and social justice have been set up in a number of Labour-run areas. Islington set the ball rolling with their landmark Fairness Commission and others including Sheffield and York have followed. In Leicester I set up a commission to explore what more can be done to tackle high rates of child poverty, which are forecast to get worst because of welfare changes.

As a model of working, commissions are proving to be useful. They allow for the exchange of ideas and joined-up working towards local solutions which will help drive out inequalities and disadvantage. Crucially, commissions are able to actively demonstrate a shared commitment to a fairness agenda both in concept and delivery.

The coalitions which are brought together through commissions and similar partnerships are key in taking recommendations from page to practice. My experience in Leicester is that we will implement some of our 66 recommendations on child poverty quickly because we had people round the table framing those proposals who can now provide important tactical input in getting them delivered. This includes the voluntary sector and private sector, showing that through this model of working it is possible to develop important relationships across sectors around key priorities. This in itself provides a mandate which can generate momentum around particular priorities or recommendations.

One of the lessons from this experience is that some of the best of what happens in local government happens when we look outwards. Labour councils are determined not to retreat in these tough times. It is clear that when we engage our communities and partners and set out to work cooperatively to find solutions we can make important progress.

This is not the ‘big society’ and attempts to badge this approach as such would be wrong. This is the best of Labour in local government, working with our communities to tackle inequality and build fairness. Labour in local government is showing that whatever the coalition can throw at us we won’t turn our backs on those we represent. We will work with our communities in the best traditions of cooperative endeavour to champion fairness and social justice.

This article was first published to coincide with the Labour Local Government Conference and the publication of One Nation Localism by Jessica Studdert.

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