Thursday, 4 December, 2014

Recently I was lucky enough to speak at two well attended public meetings, first in the London Borough of Hackney and then in the town of Frome, Somerset, a few days later. These places are very different in many ways yet their problems are remarkably alike and are clearly related to inequality.

Hackney Council wanted an outline of The Spirit Level evidence but they also wanted it linked to their local issues, in particular how it could inform their approaches to fostering social cohesion which is a priority for the council and people in the borough. In Frome, the newly established charity Fair Frome also wanted people to hear about The Spirit Level and what light it could shed on their own problem of increasing poverty in a generally affluent area. The current main project of Fair Frome is the local food bank and whilst there is a definite sense of shock from the locals that a place like Frome has families going hungry in their midst there is also great determination that this outrage be addressed. 

I was told that employment in Frome is slightly above the national average but the number of people in low-paid work is also above the national average with minimum wage and zero hours contracts being common. The problem seemed to be as much about in-work poverty as benefit reductions giving rise to a sense that a growing number of people are struggling in the town. Meanwhile, a major concern in Hackney is the way inequality is creating social distances between newer residents with more disposable income and more established communities that are struggling to make ends meet. A lack of affordable housing and soaring rents are key issues in the borough and the council and its partners are actively looking at ways to address them. 

That local poverty and related social problems are related to wider UK inequality came across loud and clear from questions and observations made in both meetings. The same processes are at work in both locations – some people are getting significantly richer, some are holding steady and an increasing number are getting noticeably poorer. Communities are becoming stretched and potentially more divided. 

Both meetings wanted proposals for what they could do locally to tackle inequality and its effects. Echoing our call for the next UK government to commit to our Inequality Test, my main recommendation was that Hackney and Frome councils should look to make the overall balance of their spending as progressive as they could manage. This could go some way to counteract the regressive nature of the funding they receive from central government taxation and the even more regressive council tax.  

At the end of the week I came away thinking that more and more people intuitively understand that poverty does not arise in a vacuum and cannot be divorced from the extremely unequal distribution of income and wealth in the UK. Poverty and its related problems are all symptoms of an unequal and unjust distribution of income and wealth that allows a minority to command too much of those resources at the expense of the rest. 

If our work can help any local council, charity or community organisation that find themselves grappling with inequality and the poverty it produces, then we would like to hear from you. The better and more widely understood the links are between inequality and poverty, the sooner we can end both.

Bill Kerry - Supporter & Local Groups Manager - bill.kerry@equalitytrust.org.uk 

The two events referred to in this blog are:
1. the Tackling Inequalities event in Hackney on 24th November which also featured Alison Garnham ofCPAG and Graeme Cooke from IPPR and 
2. the Frome - A Town of Growing Inequality? event on 27th November which also featured Marie Porter (Senior Social Care Practitioner Bath & North East Somerset) and Mark Baldwin (Senior Lecturer in Social Work at University of Bath)