Inequality in the borough – the problems and the solutions

Camden Council’s Equality Task Force issued its interim report recently. It is good that there has been an Equality Task Force since it raises the profile of the economic, social, health and educational inequalities that exist and are almost certainly worsening in the borough. It’s very unlikely that a Tory (or Lib Dem) administration would have commissioned anything similar.

The Council, however, along with Labour-controlled authorities across the country has maintained that it has no alternative but to implement large-scale spending cuts in light of the Coalition government slashing grants and imposing an effective freeze on Council Tax. In Camden by April 2014 the Council will have sliced spending by more than £80 million to balance the books. As a direct consequence between summer 2010 and October 2012 more than 520 Camden employees were made redundant. The measures actually serve to increase the inequalities in the borough that the administration says it wants to tackle. For example, the drastic cuts in play provision have not only resulted in more than 100 job losses, but will also hurt working parents. It is also safe to assume that the redundancies across the Council have increased unemployment.

The Council has trumpeted its desire to be a Living Wage Employer and agreed that future outsourced contracts will require that staff are paid at least the London Living Wage (due to rise to £8.55 in the spring). However, this is not retrospective and so scores of staff on outsourced contracts will remain on hourly rates tied to the National Minimum Wage (presently just £6.19) until at least 2015. More worrying still is that the commitment to the living wage does not currently extend to the social care sector, which has witnessed a race to the bottom in terms of pay and conditions as the result of outsourcing and the so-called ‘personalisation’ agenda.

Of course, many of the real solutions to sharply reducing inequality lie beyond the powers of one local authority. Poverty pay, often associated with very insecure employment, is a key factor in explaining the growing inequality across London and British society as a whole. A stronger trade union movement is needed to push for better pay for workers. This will require hard work at the grassroots of UNISON and other union branches, determined leadership and a more favourable legislative climate, in contrast to today’s Britain, which has among the very toughest anti-union laws in the western world.

The report also highlights the cost of housing. According to the 2011 Census the number of private tenants in the borough – nearly a third of all residents – now exceeds the figure for those in social housing. Only more council house building and the imposition of rent controls and much tougher minimum standards on private landlords can tackle this. Central government must commit to grant funding to enable local councils to build more homes for people. And profiteering private landlords need to be reined in by rent controls – as they were prior to the Thatcher government.

The Task Force has also noted that people are being hit hard by high utility bills. These above-inflation rises for electricity and gas have been caused, in part, by profiteering private utility companies. Their preoccupation is with maintaining sky-high rates of executive pay and dividends to their shareholders, not with providing a good and affordable service to the public. A future government needs to re-nationalise this sector, since genuine competition is not something that can exist in the so-called “energy market”.

Inequality does afflict the borough heavily – and to solve it requires concerted action by the Council and a national government. The Equality Task Force has diagnosed a serious social ill, but now pressure must be applied to achieve the much-needed political solutions, These must include a return to truly redistributive taxation for the rich, much greater regulation of markets and the restoration/extension of real public ownership across much of the economy including the utilities and the banking sector.

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