Fairness Commissions: tackling poverty and inequality in the UK

by Stacey Dingwall

Next month, Brighton and Hove will become the latest council area to publish the report of its Fairness Commission. Established in 2015, Brighton and Hove’s is one of 24 Fairness Commissions set up in the last five years across the UK, in areas ranging from Dundee to Plymouth.

What are Fairness Commissions?

Fairness Commissions began to come together in 2010, in the wake of rising inequality in the UK. Inspired by the publication of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson (the founders of The Equality Trust), local authorities came together with academics, trade unions, and third and private sector partners to draw  up recommendations for ways of tackling inequality and poverty in their local area.

Similar to a parliamentary select committee, Commissions begin their work by gathering evidence from the public, which is then analysed and synthesised into a final report containing recommendations to the local authority. Typically, this process lasts for a year.

In their report on Fairness Commissions published in July 2015, the New Economics Foundation outlined the typical stages of holding a commission:

  • Scope: decide what and whom you are targeting with the commission.
  • Language: decide what to call the commission and define its purpose.
  • Resource: decide on a proportionate budget and allocation of staff time.
  • Leadership: invite commissioners to participate and appoint chairs.
  • Communication: start talking about the commission locally and invite people to participate.
  • Participation: gather evidence and solutions through a range of methods.
  • Analysis: develop recommendations based on the evidence and possible solutions.
  • Recommendations: make recommendations for change to the relevant organisations.
  • Implementation: put the recommendations into action.
  • Evaluation: monitor progress, measure change, and report on it.

Fairness in London – the Tower Hamlets story

Two key reports have been published by Commissions in London: one by the pan-city London Fairness Commission and another by the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission. Inequality between the East and West of the City dates back to Victorian times and while Tower Hamlets has seen some improvements, most notably due to investment in education, this gap still persists. Although home to the global financial hub Canary Wharf, a major contributor to the borough’s £6 billion a year economy, 49% of Tower Hamlets’ residents live in poverty – the highest proportion in the entire country. Despite ever increasing house prices and rents in London – an average income of £75,000 was required to privately rent in the borough in 2012 – a fifth of its residents earn under £15,000 a year.

These figures, alongside evidence of stark health inequalities and the impact of welfare reform, formed the basis of the Fairness Commission’s inquiry in 2012-13. Speaking to residents, the Commissioners found a distrust of the big business that now dominates the borough, partly due its perceived contribution to the gentrification of the area. Residents whose families had lived in Tower Hamlets for generations spoke of feeling like they existed in a “parallel world” and that opportunities in the borough were inaccessible to them. The Commission’s final report made a total of 16 recommendations, for local and national government and the third sector, aimed at bringing the local community back together and making Tower Hamlets a fairer place to live.

Fairness and inequality – the political agenda

The London Fairness Commission was one of the organisations who made recommendations to the new Mayor of London ahead of his election on the 5th of May. In a poll conducted one week prior to polling, the Commission found that three out of four respondents believed that the income gap between those on the highest incomes and those on the lowest incomes had increased over the last five years, and that the majority would welcome the introduction of an annual London Fairness Index to test whether the city is a fair one in which to live.

The Index was one of the key recommendations in the Commission’s final report, which described the city as a ‘ticking time bomb’. Housing, transport and childcare were identified as the three biggest issues facing London, and the Commission made a number of recommendations on how to address these, including:

  • a binding London minimum wage of £9.70 per hour;
  • setting ‘affordable rents’ at 30% of household income rather than 80% of market rent; and
  • suspending the right to buy scheme for five years while supply is increased.

Reducing inequalities was also a key feature of the Scottish Parliament elections, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledging that the SNP would “use every power” to tackle poverty and inequality in the country. Sturgeon also detailed plans to implement the recommendations of the Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality, publish a Fairer Scotland Action Plan, and reintroduce the socioeconomic duty for public bodies to consider the impact that their decisions will have on narrowing inequalities.

With the UK government committed to continuing their austerity programme, and persistent evidence that the UK is one of the least equal of the world’s developed countries, it’s clear that reducing inequality and striving for fairness will, and must, remain high on the political agenda for the foreseeable future.


Read more from our blog on poverty and inequality in the UK:

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One thought on “Fairness Commissions: tackling poverty and inequality in the UK

  1. Pingback: Fairness Commissions: tackling poverty and inequality in the UK | UK Business and Sports News

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