As we approach its quarter-way mark, the 21st century is proving far more complex than we might have imagined when we ushered in the new millennium.
Alas for many of us in local government, our task has not been the relentless replication of the ‘ideal authority’, the new public management equivalent of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, but the daunting job of determining who public services need to be for and how best to deliver them.
At the heart of this reimagining are profound questions about power. Who has it, who doesn’t, who exercises it and who experiences its impact? These questions are structural but also moral, and in their answers we glimpse the shape and character of public services and their leadership for generations to come.
The starting point for many places is a context that is ever clearer and one which shows no sign of going away anytime soon. This ‘new normal’ is one of perma-austerity with unsustainable rises in demand for services that were conceived for different times and now struggle to cope. It is mega changes in expectations and the erosion of trust, driven in part by new technology, but also the rapid decline of old-world power paradigms. It is environmental degradation and also rapid and unpredictable demographic change that challenges prevailing patterns of cohesion and identity. It is an economy that isn’t working for far too many people.
Inclusive growth can’t only be a matter of economic distribution but one of overcoming those pivotal deficits of power
Places like Barking & Dagenham have been at the sharp end of this change. Like others, we’ve been battered by austerity. We’re a post-industrial town (quite literally post-Fordist) where stable, semi-skilled, mainly (white) male jobs have disappeared in a manner not dissimilar to some of our great northern towns and cities. Over the past two decades we have also experienced seismic demographic change. In 2001, 89% of our population was white British; by 2011 this was less than half. The change hasn’t slowed. We have some wards in the borough where fewer than 9% of people associated with an address in 2011 were still living there in 2018. We also have the youngest population in the UK.
Meanwhile socio-economic outcomes for many of our residents are not good enough. We languish at the bottom of too many London league tables and often those furthest away from the prospects of economic and social participation are women and girls. The financial cost of this to cash-starved local public services is huge, the human cost unbearable.
It’s against this background that notions of tradition, identity and power are contentious. In 2006, 12 members of the British National Party were elected to the council, an event no less remarkable for the fact that they only had 13 candidates. With hindsight, were we the canary in the mine? A decade later we went on to be one of the few Brexit boroughs in London.
On the upside, we’re a part of London that is experiencing significant economic growth. We have space for 50-60,000 new homes 25-40 minutes from central London. Two years ago we created our own growth, regeneration and development company, Be First, and our own general fund housing company, Reside. For the first time ever, we’re now building more council-owned houses for let than we are losing through right-to-buy. Meanwhile, we’ve completely redesigned council services so they are focused on tackling root causes rather than presenting needs. There is much more to be done in all these areas, but we’ve made a start.
We see our role as three-fold. The first is intervening in how capitalism is working in the borough, particularly in relation to housing delivery, job creation and wealth retention. This is so we shape it to our ends and ensure a local economic foundation that works for as many as possible. Second, intervening at a structural level in our society and community so we break down the barriers holding people back and tackle the long-term root cause of demand. This will require the use of data and insight on a scale never before seen in the public sector, but deep empathy too. And finally establishing new relationships with citizens, because all of this is personal and it is political. Our mission is to foster trust, and a sense of agency, and to provide real opportunities to participate in and sometimes control the decisions that affect citizens’ lives.
It’s at the intersection of these themes that we find, hidden in plain sight, the deficits of power. The structural characteristics of our place, that if altered or diminished, could change everything. In Barking & Dagenham one of those features is domestic violence.
Our borough has the highest level of reported domestic violence in London. Indeed, Village ward in Dagenham has the highest reported DV of any of the 600 wards in the capital. Public health colleagues estimate that one in 30 female residents have suffered female genital mutilation. Meanwhile, 80% of our 400 or so looked-after children were taken into care from households where DV was a feature of daily life. As troubling, last year when we surveyed year 11 students (15-16 year-olds) about relationships, care for one another and love, a staggering 38% agreed with the statement: “there are occasions when it is ok to slap your partner if they have been out of line”. This, in the borough with the youngest population in the country.
Now that we choose to see, we find an imbalance of power between the sexes that is at the heart of an epidemic level of harm. Moreover, it is normalised and so it is doubly catastrophic. Accordingly, Barking & Dagenham LBC is seeking to understand why it is that domestic abuse has become so culturally acceptable within the communities we serve. Then we then want to act, through our workforce, with partners and with our communities. To this end, before the summer we will launch a commission to help inform our thinking. We hope it will draw our borough together in a conversation about how we live together, how we love, how we resolve conflict and what equality between men and women and boys and girls must mean and the norms of behaviour that flow from that. We think it will have national significance because as we are finding, inclusive growth can’t only be a matter of economic distribution but one of understanding and overcoming those pivotal deficits of power however and wherever they manifest.
Chris Naylor, chief executive, Barking & Dagenham LBC