Fairness has become one of the most important ideas in contemporary politics. It’s a concept leveraged by both sides of the political spectrum, to attack or support decisions about who gets what, and how – particularly when it comes to state support.
Most would agree that people should not have poorer health or fewer opportunities, simply because of where they live. Or that people who work hard should be able to earn enough to live on. Or that we should support those in our society who have experienced unprecedented difficulties in their lives, through no fault of their own.
In all of these examples, we can recognise the possibility that it could be us; that we could easily have found ourselves in this position, if it weren’t for a few quirks of fate.
A sleight of hand
But one of the great triumphs – or indeed, sleights of hand – of recent years has been the way that an educated, rich and articulate political elite have attacked the conditions of those with least, in the name of those with only a little.
There has been a kind of inversion of the Robin Hood principle. Instead of a galvanising argument that those with excessive wealth should be taxed in the name of those with least, we now hear it said that the residents of social housing, lone mothers, penniless migrants and those looking for work are people who we cannot afford to maintain. Or, worse, that such groups are somehow a drain on the livelihoods of those who are working hard.
This rhetoric has served a programme of austerity, which has enabled wealthy institutions and individuals to avoid much of the pain generated by the financial crisis, and – according to top economists – harmed the UK’s economic recovery. But there is good cause to believe that a less polarised vision could ensure that people are given equal opportunity to thrive, regardless of their circumstances.
The fairest city
This is the vision underpinning the Sheffield Fairness Commission – which aims to make Sheffield the fairest city in the country. These blueprints offer some practical guidelines about what cities can actually do to promote social and economic fairness – particularly given that many policy “levers”, such as the level of social security benefits, cannot be operated from within the city.
With the help of 23 independent commissioners – who include councillors from all of the main political parties, as well as representatives from local groups including the voluntary sector, church, chamber of commerce and local press – the commission produced a report in 2013 which detailed 48 recommendations for action. It also put together a guide to help business owners, the local authority and even families make fair decisions. Since then, there has been an annual review of progress, to measure what the city has been able to achieve.
Here’s what has been accomplished. Led by the city council, several large employers have introduced a higher living wage based on calculations by the Living Wage Foundation, and the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce has also encouraged small and medium-sized organisations to do so. Another recommendation, on fair access to credit, resulted in the creation of Sheffield Money, to compete with the unscrupulous and usurious payday lenders.
More recently, a fair employer charter was introduced, designed to ensure fair conditions of work as well as pay. Several large public and private organisations have already signed up to the charter, which focuses on promoting fair and flexible employment contracts. It encourages recruitment and employment practices that identify and support talent, value diversity and promote aspiration and social mobility. And it promotes the delivery of excellent working conditions, high ethical standards, positive health and well-being and training, development and reward opportunities.
The measures extend beyond business, too. Health funding has been redistributed from acute to primary and community care, and 20mph speed limits have been introduced to cut child injuries and deaths, and reduce air pollution.
These and other measures have not yet succeeded in reversing inequality. But they do seem to have played a role in preventing it from getting worse in many aspects of city life. All this has been achieved in the face of adverse national policies, which have removed massive resources from the city council. For instance, the cuts to housing, disability and job seekers’ benefits alone have removed £200m annually from the city.
The work of the commission goes to show that there are things which cities can do, which have a tangible impact on the lives of thousands of people. When city institutions can come together around an idea, it is possible to play down politically fractious relationships, and focus instead on what really matters: that our society is fundamentally a fair one. Whether or not such local initiatives to promote fairness can be extended nationally or even if they will survive the various devolution deals taking place are, for the moment, open questions.