Claiming a new municipalism inspired by Barcelona, the borough of Islington bordering the City district in London, pursues a policy of combating inequalities against the background of an inclusive economy. It is betting on an active remunicipalisation strategy, the return of public services and community wealth building to fight against the pockets of poverty, gentrification and transformation of the commercial fabric. This Anglo-Saxon municipalism in the heart of the capital of finance has something to arouse curiosity. During a seminar organized during our mobility in England, we met Asima Shaikh, Executive Memnber for inclusive economy and jobs in Islington. To find out more, here is a summary of our discussions.
Free return to the public services
The borough of Islington is the English municipality that has experienced the most radical return to public service movement. Between 2011 and 2019, the city repatriated £ 380 million worth of services, including housing management and repair, garbage collection, street cleaning, grounds maintenance, education management , concierge services, cleaning and temporary accommodation.
This policy was based on the first British fairness commission, established in 2010. The fairness commission brings together experts, organizations and residents to collect evidence, data and information on the negative effects of inequality and urban poverty and make recommendations to reduce them that can be implemented by key partners, (usually local authorities, private and public sector partners and sometimes the national government) to eliminate the structures that create and recreate inequality and poverty.
This first wave of return to public services was followed by tangible results: savings on the overall cost, and improved quality of services. It also made it possible to finance strong measures: free canteens for children, the implementation of the London Living wage for city officials.
“To go further and faster in making a difference for local people, we need a government that recognizes the transformational role proactive and progressive councils can have in helping to make our society a fairer place for all”.
Fighting gentrification with the inflection of the land market
The city of Islington then took a series of progressive and municipalist measures to combat gentrification, identified as a stimulator of inequalities on its territory.
Affordable workspace: Islington Affordable Workspace Strategy. As a planning authority, the city has developed a strategy of pre-emption and very low-rent (up to free) renting of commercial space. The provision is subject to a social contract between the borough, and managers mostly from the sectors of cooperatives, social enterprises and charitable organizations. They must provide and demonstrate that they provide a long-term benefit to local people and businesses. The example of Outlandish, a cooperative working on tech: the contract between them and the Borough stipulated that they had to take action to feminize the sector.
This is accompanied by a radical policy in favor of the development of affordable housing articulated around Section 106 of the urban planning document, establishing a logic of 50% affordable housing in each new construction. However, this positioning is particularly difficult to achieve given the fact that the Borough must rely exclusively on private promoters to achieve this objective, as evidenced by the legal battle waged by the Bourough against the developer Parkhrst Road in 2014. The latter had filed a complaint against Islington, which had opposed a housing project comprising only 10% social housing, arguing that the purchase price of the land did not allow it to build more affordable housing unless the operation no longer be profitable. The Borough finally won its lawsuit, the ruling announcing that profitability is not a valid criterion for breaking out of political objectives.
This decision reinforced Islington in its balance of power with real estate developers, and had a real impact on the general dynamics of the real estate market, influencing the rise in land prices.
Community wealth building is not just an economic development activity as an economic agency could do, it is a strategic reorientation, which has forced Islington to review a set of public policies as a strategic lever for the issue of reduction of inequalities, in particular public purchasing, as a lever for investment in responsible players, and economic development as an investment policy in strategic sectors of activity (health) and development of missing links in the supply chain value. On this last point, the borough was inspired by the example of Barcelona on the social sector. The city had carried out an action to identify places in order to mesh the territory with micro-care nodes at the level of the districts.
What changes for the administration and elected officials?
The Council began this adventure with two difficult years, devoted to the elaboration of an economic development plan never applied. The Borough was then accompanied by the CLES and the New Economics Foundation, and undertook an evaluation of its practices. From there, it was able to better identify many management issues and HR needs (recruitment, training).
This work led to the recruitment of a “head of inclusive economy” (5/6 in Islington, 1/6 in CLES). Among the lessons learned from this work, the borough has changed its recruitment methods: on the basis of culture more than that of skills (in terms of economic development for example). During recruitment, the future agent commits to a “community based engagement”, which makes it possible to clarify the agent’s commitment to the development of the community, local businesses and residents.
On the side of elected officials, this approach does not meet with opposition, because Islington is a Labor majority with a real consensus around this strategy. The posture of the elected official may be a blind spot in the process, insofar as the city has not systematized the principle of “communty based engagement” for elected officials.