Opportunity knocks? The Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission begins its work

By - Tuesday 20th January, 2015

Sean Creighton welcomes the launch of Croydon’s long-promised Opportunity and Fairness Commission

‘Fairness commissions in other boroughs are essentially about anti-poverty measures’.
Creative Commons licence.

At last the Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission is starting on Wednesday 28th January with a launch at Stanley Halls in South Norwood, 7:00-8:30pm.

The idea of a Fairness Commission for Croydon was a welcome Labour manifesto headline pledge. The Labour administration agreed to set it up at the cabinet meeting on Monday 30th June. The delay in its start has been due to the problem of finding a chair – eventually the Bishop of Croydon.

The commission will be calling for evidence from residents, community organisations, businesses and other experts. An interim report will be produced in September. This will be followed by a further phase of work culminating in a final report in January 2016.

The commission’s initial meeting clashes with the one advertised for some time by Croydon Communities Consortium, which is funded to hold public consultation meetings by the council. I have suggested that the CCC should re-schedule its meeting so that those who normally attend can go to the Commission’s launch.

At the core of ‘fairness’ lies the issue of growing wealth inequalities

Fairness commissions in other London boroughs and cities are essentially about anti-poverty measures. They are a welcome recognition of the need to revive the former anti-poverty strategy approach of councils in the 1980s and 1990s. At the core of the concept of ‘fairness’ lie the growing wealth inequalities across the country, made worse by such things as people being paid below a living wage, zero hours contracts, and cuts to benefits both for those in work and the unemployed.

Fairness commissions are a means to an end, not an the end in themselves. The end is to try and halt the growing wealth diversity, and to improve incomes, living standards and opportunities for the least wealthy.

Last year the Webb Memorial Trust, which was mentioned in the cabinet report, commissioned some work on poverty, inequality and commissions for the All Party Parliamentary Group on poverty. Issues have emerged from commissions elsewhere in the country that raise a number of questions for the Croydon one to consider:

  • Are there other ways to reduce the wide disparities in income between the wealthiest and poorest households? Whilst the living wage focuses on the lowest paid, should the pay ratios with higher earners be reduced? Should there be a cut in the pay of senior officers starting with the chief executive?
  • Living wage: I discuss this here
  • Debt and credit: how can support be given to develop the credit union sector to provide an alternative to payday loans and competitive banking services for people on low incomes? Is it possible to have a bye-law restricting the activity of payday loan companies?
  • Increasing job opportunities for local people: how can new local businesses and social enterprises be created with a clear strategy and action plan? How can employers be encouraged to increase the proportion of local people they employ?
  • Tackling youth unemployment: can larger businesses be persuaded to effect a step change in their engagement with local people, guaranteeing to provide an agreed percentage of work experience placements every year and committing to increasing apprenticeship and other local employment opportunities?
  • Targeted support for mothers: can employers be persuaded to develop a targeted package of employment support to mothers, especially for those groups of women with particularly low rates of employment, combining advice on childcare, training, volunteering and employment options?
  • Health: can greater and more integrated provision of preventative and community-based health and social care services be provided, particularly for the elderly, and reduction in the large gap in life expectancy between the least and most deprived areas be achieved? Can increased attention be given improving the physical health care of people with mental health problems?
  • Housing: can a London living rent formula be developed? How can newly-developed homes be prevented from standing empty? Can more premises over shops be brought into residential use?
  • Internet access: can a partnership be developed in which universities and the creative digital industries play a role in making free access to wireless internet universal across the borough?
  • Reducing energy bills: should the council and housing associations assess the feasibility of becoming an affordable energy provider?
  • Food banks: what support should be given to food banks and other providers of emergency food relief?
  • Enhancing democracy: what needs to be done to encourage voter registration and increase the number of voters?
  • Implementation: there will be a problem of moving from identifying achievable recommendations to implementation and action where recommendations are too general or too ambitious. What will happen after the commission has reported and published its recommendations? Who will be responsible for implementing the next stage?
This task needs lateral thinkers, independent in their questioning

Beyond partnership and calls for more collaboration between public, private and third sector bodies, there has been little in any of the reports about alternative political strategies or recommendations about how tackling poverty and inequality might be advanced in the cut and thrust of public and political life. This is perhaps not surprising given the commission’s model and the nature of the process. However, the extent to which partnership and consensus alone can deliver the change that is required to significantly reduce poverty and inequality is debatable.

Anyone who has been involved in partnership processes over the last two or three decades knows how difficult they are to work in, especially when small partners, such as the community and voluntary sector, get marginalised and trodden all over.

The members of the commission who will be announced at the launch meeting on 28th January will be taking on a very onerous, time-consuming task. They will need to be lateral thinkers with wide experience across economic, regeneration and social policy, analysis and delivery. It needs people who are independent in their questioning and thinking, and who are not locked into existing council, other public service or private enterprise structures.

On the original timetable the commission is due to publish its final report in January 2016. Given the delay in its start will the timetable be revised?

Rather than set up a small support team from existing staff seconded from departments that are undergoing cuts, the council tendered out the function. Let’s hope that the team has a good track record in public engagement and understanding about effective partnership working. In my experience of teams servicing other partnerships and enquiries, this is a potential Achilles’ heel.

The cabinet report can be accessed here. If you are interested in attending the commission’s launch, please  or ring freephone 0800 612 2182.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • CroydonNeighbourhood

    Thanks for opening up the discussion on this, Sean.

    Having been in communication with the Commission organisers, we understand this launch is just the start of a year long period of engagement and that the Commission are still working to a deadline of January 2016 to report.

    It is unfortunately too late for CCC to alter the plans for our meeting on the same night. We are proceeding with our meeting but also advertising the Opportunity and Fairness Commission as we know it will be of wide interest.

    Anyone not planning to attend the launch might like to attend our public meeting, which is being held in Central Croydon on the same night. See https://croydoncc.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/ccc-public-meeting-croydon-weds-28-january-2015/ for details.

    Our next is in South Croydon.

    Elizabeth Ash
    Chair – CCC

  • Robert Ward

    I have looked at a couple of examples of the reports of similar bodies. Some were good, some were very poor.

    I look forward to the kick-off but reading through the Council proposal does not augur well. For example:

    * When did ‘opportunity’ come in and what does that mean?
    * A list of possible leaders, all of whom presumably declined, shows poor planning.
    * The risk assessment just lists ‘money’. I can think of ten more, most obviously, that we wont get a team lead or a team together in time to complete the project to plan.
    * what is in scope, and what is out of scope?
    * What does success look like?
    * What are the constraints? For example, deliver by a certain date.
    * what should the team look like? Are there must-have skills?
    * etc. etc.

    Thee is an old saying “If you don’t know where you are going, you should not be surprised if you don’t get there”.