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Fairness in tough times

September 16, 2013

I recently attended a national conference on fairness in this age of austerity. Newcastle was asked to talk about how to involve local people during tough times. It was a good time to reflect on the Newcastle Fairness Commission which reported just over a year ago.

The Commission recognised the importance of getting people involved in making the big decisions that affect their lives. This was captured in the title of the Commission’s report: “Fair Say, Fair Play, Fair Go, Fair Say”.

  • Fair share: where people can expect fair outcomes and a fair share of services, according to their needs.
  • Fair play: where people can have confidence that decisions are made in an even-handed, open and transparent way, according to evidence.
  • Fair go: where people have opportunities to participate, and a chance to fulfil their aspirations for the future.
  • Fair say: where people feel included in their city, communities and neighbourhoods, given a fair hearing and an effective voice in decision making.

The Commission recognised that Newcastle was entering a period when resources would be hard to find and competition for them would be intense. The Council would make difficult choices which not everyone would consider to be fair. Rather than making proposals for how those decisions should be taken, instead the Commission identified the principles that should be applied.

The Commission paid particular attention to the need for a strong citizens’ voice to be heard during decision making. Traditional approaches to consultation don’t always do this fairly because those who have power and influence often get a bigger say than the weak and vulnerable. They warned that in a climate of cuts, reductions in services to the most vulnerable can sometimes be easier to make than services for everyone because the voice of the vulnerable is drowned out by the clamour of complaints.

Over the last three years, Newcastle City Council has adopted an approach to consultation called “Let’s Talk”. It’s an ambitious programme of public engagement, policy debate, events and social media about the future of the city.

Within months of the Commission publishing its reports, we entered into the most extensive consultation in the city’s history – with the aim of setting a three year budget which could help the city through a devastating period of cuts of over £100million. We attracted 50,000 items of feedback on our proposals, and adjusted them accordingly.

Integral to our approach has been a ruthless commitment to honesty, giving people the facts unadulterated by spin, so that our conversation can be frank and meaningful.

We have faced criticism for being so open. We’ve even been accused of exaggerating the scale of the cuts – when, in fact, if anything we have under-stated them. Having been through all of this, I am absolutely convinced by our experience that it’s only by being open to the challenges we face, that local democratic institutions can help our communities through these huge challenges.

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