Fairness in tough times

andyhull.jpgMary’s a single mum who lives on a council estate here in Islington with her three children, Josh, aged 9, Michael, 18, and Lisa, who’s 20*.

They used to live in an overcrowded property, at least one bedroom short of what the family really needed. It was hard for her kids to do their homework, growing up in such cramped conditions, and Mike’s asthma was made worse by the condensation and mould that they couldn’t get rid of.

Now, Mary and her family live in a brand new flat on the same estate which she got first dibs on through the Local Lettings scheme, and where she pays Social Rent, which is a third of what some of her neighbours seem to pay private landlords for similar flats in the block next door. 

Mary works as a cleaner for the Council. She used to be employed by a private contractor at not much above the Minimum Wage: now she does the same job, but works for the Council itself, and gets paid the full London Living Wage of £8.80 an hour. She knows that one of the reasons her wages went up is because the Chief Executive’s pay got cut by £50,000 to pay for it, closing the gap a bit between those at the bottom and those at the top of the Town Hall. So now she only has to work one job, unlike before, when she had to do catering at the Emirates on match days as well to make ends meet. So, she gets to spend a bit more time with her kids at weekends and can afford the odd Christmas present, which makes a world of difference at that time of year. When she’s asked about the difference an extra quid or two an hour has made, she uses words like ‘earnt’ and ‘dignity’.

She’s got two other friends who’ve had a pay-rise these last couple of years as well: Nathan, who’s a security guard, and Jessie, who’s a dinner lady at a local school. Her friend Moira, who does home care visits, says she might get a pay rise too, in the summer. About time, Mary figures, given there aren’t many jobs more important than Moira’s, looking after our grandmas and granddads when they can no longer look after themselves.

Mary’s had her fair share of money troubles though, and her son Mike has too -; he’s a lot like his mum. So she’s been grateful for the support she’s got on how to deal with debt from the folk at the new Citizens Advice Bureau that opened up on Upper Street. They referred Michael onto the Fit Money programme too, where he’s been learning a bit about how to manage his money as well. She’d got into trouble before, borrowing from The Money Shop in Finsbury Park when there always seemed to be too much month at the end of her money. She heard about the local Credit Union though through some colleagues at the Council, and now she puts away a few pounds at the end of each month into a savings account there, through payroll. It’s not much, but it means that she’s been able to take out what they call a Saver Loan at sensible rates. The Council even put £40 into her savings account to help her get started. She realises now that the interest she was having to pay The Money Shop was a total rip-off. It makes her want to spit whenever she walks past there these days and they’re handing out branded balloons to mums with prams. 

Mary’s kids aren’t perfect, but they mean the world to her, and now their futures are looking a bit brighter, she says. Michael got some mentoring in his last year at school, which seemed to really help with his confidence, and he’s had a work experience placement that the Council helped set up, which helped him see that working is a damned sight better than sitting on the dole like his dad used to, feeling like he wasn’t up to much. Now Michael goes to college, and, although the government cut the Educational Maintenance Allowance, he gets £300 a year from the Council in the form of a bursary to buy the books and kit he needs.

Lisa’s currently doing an apprenticeship at a City firm who are in some sort of partnership with the Council, learning how the systems work behind that all-important Reception desk. She can see herself working there full-time in the future, but knows she’ll have to knuckle down and impress as an apprentice first, ‘cos the job market’s really tough.

Meanwhile, Josh’s marks are improving at school. Mary knew he had it in him. But getting a proper hot meal every day for lunch has definitely helped, and his classmate Ryan’s less disruptive too, now he’s off the Lucozade and out of the Chicken Shop. The best thing is, the food is free. And because everyone gets it, Josh and his mates don’t have to worry about whose mum can afford to buy them dinner and whose can’t. At a saving of over £300 a year, not having to find the cash for school dinners is a godsend. Josh is also reading a lot more than he used to, after he took part in some ‘Word’ festival last year at school. Although the books were on the back burner over half term last week, ‘cos Josh was out all day playing footie with his pal, Aaron, on a new pitch that just got built on what was a bit of waste land on the estate around the corner where he lives.

If you ask Mary, she’ll always tell you the Council should be investing in young people, as Islington’s future. In fact, Mary reckons that you’ve got to get to ’em when they’re really young -; in that crucial first year, or even beforehand when they’re still just a bump -; to make the biggest difference to how they end up later on. Josh certainly benefited from his Sure Start Children’s Centre -; Mary just wishes, for the sake of her friends with young children, that there were more affordable childcare around. She knows though that children’s centres are getting closed down up North, where her brother lives, and she’s glad that isn’t happening here.

God knows how she finds the time, but Mary’s also been doing a bit of volunteering this winter, looking out for some of the older people on her estate when it’s been cold. Good Neighbours, they call it. It’s meant she’s met a few people she might never have done otherwise as well, from the other side of the road, where the houses are proper posh. She thinks the idea though that people with a bit of time or money should chip in to help out in the community is spot on. Islington Giving they call it, she says.

All in all, Mary reckons that Islington isn’t a bad place to bring up her family these days. She’s a bit wary of words like Fairness, as she figures it means different things to different people, and she’s never really been one for high-faluting Commissions, whatever they are. But if it means leveling the playing field a bit, so her kids have as good a chance to get on as those across the road, and if it means focusing a bit on those who are struggling because they need it most, then it’s alright by her…

You can read the paper on tonight’s agenda about the progress we’ve made, implementing the recommendations of the Islington Fairness Commission. There are lots of impressive words and numbers in it. But, in between the lines, I hope you can read stories like Mary’s. Because those stories are out there, on every street, from Archway down to Finsbury and from the Cally Road to Clissold Park. They’re what local politics is all about. They show that ‘on your side’ and ‘fairness in tough times’ are not just empty rhetoric. We are making a difference. Let’s keep it up…

 * This fictional family illustrates the real impact the Fairness Commission has had.

This speech was delivered at last week’s full council meeting. Cllr Andy Hull co-chaired the Islington Fairness Commission and is now Islington Council’s Executive Member for Finance and Performance. He tweets at @AndyHull79

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