Michael Keating on ‘Making rights real’

Making rights real: joining-up is the only way to do it – while adapting to change of course

The central theme of ‘Making rights real: joining-up is the only way to do it’, the paper I wrote with Jiwan Raheja in Beyond 2015, is the continuing importance of learning from the practice of others – how to build an understanding of diversity in local places, what this teaches about tackling inequality and why partnerships within and between organisations, with communities and individuals are crucial.  In April, with a colleague I ran a couple of training workshops on ‘how impact assessments improve decision-making’ for officers of Thanet District Council.

The Isle of Thanet has been separated from the mainland for over 7000 years and Thanet District Council is now responsible for Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate as well as a number of small villages.  Ranked 1st (of 12 local authorities in Kent) in the Index of Multiple Deprivation and 49th in England, 95.5 per cent of the district’s population (of 136,800) are White, 28.7 per cent are over 60, 14.7 per cent live on out of work benefits and 26 per cent of its children are ‘in poverty’.[1]  Clearly the Council has much to do in addressing local needs but over recent years it has also had a well-reported chequered history.

In December 2012, it was described as “dysfunctional” over the conduct of councillors at meetings.  The following November an independent report said there was suspicion of “secrecy and corruption” and the Labour leader resigned because of “toxic behaviour” from “a minority of councillors.”  Following a peer review by the Local Government Association (LGA) in March 2014, the Council was warned about the homophobic behaviour of its councillors, and told that, “rebuilding your reputation is the most important challenge you face.”  In December 2014 councillors controversially voted against the compulsory purchase of Manston Airport, regarded as a strong driver for local regeneration.[2]

The equality impact assessment training that we undertook arose from a wider programme of LGA work to rebuild community leadership.  Our workshops were designed to help the Council be more confident about its understanding of local communities; collaborative in its approach to building and sharing this knowledge across its different services, with elected members and, in turn, with partners; creative about how to use this understanding and these relationships to engage with communities in meeting local challenges; and, in turn, committed to improving its policies and services.

Our workshops encourage a more sophisticated interpretation of what ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ mean locally and how to embed this by using impact assessments (or equality analysis) to demonstrate evidence-based decision-making and ‘due regard’ to the public sector Equality Duty.  ‘Knowing your community’ has to sit at the heart of making fair decisions as national and international evidence shows those public organisations that focus on getting this right are better able to meet their challenges.

While delivering the session, what stood out was the longstanding commitment of officers to the local area (the longest serving had been at the Council for 37 years).  This raised some interesting discussions about the organisation’s ability to manage change and how Thanet’s geographic isolation often makes this difficult.  At the same time immense enthusiasm about the place was evident which we felt could be exploited as an inspiration to others.

As the groups explored how to use impact assessments collectively, providing different service perspectives to build up a picture of local communities and their needs, there was a growing awareness about the insight which good diversity and equality practice provides.  It highlighted how Thanet Council cannot do what needs to be done alone and underlined the importance of stronger partnerships with the wider public sector, the community and voluntary and private sectors as well as faith groups, schools and the myriad other ways that individuals and organisations organise themselves.

At the end of the workshops participants recognised the importance of doing impact assessments earlier in their decision-making process and sharing them with colleagues in their own teams, and more widely across the Council.  Once again the importance of ‘joining up’ was reinforced as the way to develop learning as well as building up an understanding of the cumulative impact of decisions made by Thanet District Council.

Reflecting on their recent history the officers felt impact assessments could be used after the upcoming election to start building new relationships between officers and members anchored in an understanding of communities and strengthened public engagement.

On 8 May residents expressed their desire for change by electing 33 councillors who mean Thanet District Council is the first UKIP-controlled local authority.  This will no doubt set a new direction for how the Council continues to demonstrate its duty to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations.

It’s a reminder of how ‘Beyond 2015’ there will always be new challenges for making rights real – and how ‘joining up’ will need to change to meet them.

Michael Keating

east11@mac.com

[1] http://www.kent.gov.uk/about-the-council/information-and-data/Facts-and-figures-about-Kent/area-profiles
[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32672010