Lewisham Council and equality objectives *
Approach taken to developing equality objectives
Lewisham’s draft equality objectives reflect the aspirations the council has for citizens and local communities as well as relevant data that has been drawn together from around thirty different sources. These datasets comprise everything from demographic information collected by central government to local data on civic participation, hate crime, pupil performance, health outcomes and resident feedback. The analysis of this data has helped to paint a picture of the borough and any disparities in resident experience that equalities objectives should seek to address. The council is developing its work around:
- tackling victimisation, harassment and discrimination;
- improving access to services;
- closing the gap in outcomes for our citizens;
- increasing mutual understanding and respect between communities;
- increasing participation and engagement.
There is scope for the five draft themes to resonate with each of the protected characteristics, without resorting to the more traditional approach of constructing plans, targets and actions for each of those groups in isolation.
Using data to prioritise objectives
A starting point for deciding how to prioritise objectives has been to understand the diversity of the communities Lewisham serves, and the views citizens themselves have about equality and fairness. Amid the conversations Lewisham has been having with residents about savings, residents appeared to have a clear sense of what constitutes fairness – including maintaining support for the most vulnerable. To that extent, the council is of the view that creating the opportunities through which to develop a common understanding is crucial as it builds an evidence base that allows the council to prioritise and focus effort on those areas of greatest concern.
Realising they already had a huge amount of citizen feedback available to them, Lewisham wanted to avoid creating new set-piece consultation exercises around the objective-setting process. Large-scale public events can ‘have their place’, they acknowledge, but are not necessarily the best way of engaging people and finding out what interests or troubles them.
Lewisham began instead by asking ‘what information do we already have on local views and needs relating to equality?’ and ‘what existing vehicles do we have to find out more?’ The regular programme of local assemblies provided one forum, for instance. Pulling together the insight data that was already out there, this has been interrogated, mapped and presented back to community groups to make sure the council’s interpretation is consistent with local aspirations. This meant that instead of starting from another blank piece of paper, the council has been able to consult more smartly and take the conversation further.
Lewisham’s narrative around its approach to fairness and equalities work
For Lewisham, the legislative requirements set a minimum standard but their own narrative around fairness and equality aims to go beyond that, to crystallise their local ambition to make greater strides. They reflect that they have come as far as they have because of the efforts of their communities, not simply because of what the law has required them to do, and that continuing to nurture equality in future will need that ownership and commitment by local people to continue. Furthermore, with the end of the old comprehensive equalities scheme, the council has taken the opportunity to mature the local debate about equality and imbed this more universal understanding of what it means and why it’s so important to all citizens. A central plank of this local narrative is that equality is not exclusively about specific groups, but about everyone, and that the persistence of inequality is bad not just for individuals but for the whole area, because it creates barriers to the health and prosperity of an entire community. As such, the narrative is one of shared goals, of common aspirations and expectations of what we, collectively, want life in Lewisham to be like.
In taking that narrative into the community and enabling local organisations and individuals to be ‘custodians’ of it, Lewisham is also making the statement that people are an asset; that equality is not just about the council helping people in need as passive recipients, but that progressing equality requires those same people to bring their own views, ideas and energy to bear.
The impact of austerity
Lewisham is clear that the message about the value of equality cannot be watered down by economic constraints, even if the resources available to do the job are limited. At a time when people are undergoing greater economic hardship and public services are changing, ensuring that everyone is enabled to access opportunities is more important than ever – both for individuals and communities, and for the wider economy. This serves as an important reminder that it is the most vulnerable who can be most acutely affected. Sustaining economic demand and social cohesion, they argue, depends significantly on an understanding of how prejudice, discrimination and disadvantage can mitigate against economic success. In practical terms, budget constraints inevitably mean that the council’s equalities work – like other areas of activity – will need to happen with fewer resources. In that sense, austerity impacts on equalities as it impacts on everything else, but it has not dictated the approach the council is taking. Financial realities confirm the efficacy of the council’s decision not to construct work streams, targets and budgets for each of the eight protected groups under the new legislation, but this is an approach based on what would be most effective rather than what they could afford.
Accountability arrangements for the equality objectives
Lewisham is proposing that once agreed the draft equality objectives will be built into its service plans, which will be reviewed and updated annually. To monitor impact, the council will use existing data sets that are already updated annually and which can indicate whether or not progress is being made. Alongside this, efforts will also be made to further extend the coverage of data gathering, where gaps have been identified. An annual report will present findings on how successfully the equality objectives have been achieved – this will be published online.
* Fairness and Equality – Leading in London Towards Good Practice: Key learning points from a development project 2010 – 2012, Report to London Councils - June 2012