24th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 19-21 March 2013)
Debate on Combating social exclusion – 20 March 2013
Speech of Damien EGAN, Cabinet Member for Strategy and Communications, Lewisham Council, United Kingdom
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Good afternoon and thank you to Congress for inviting me as a representative from Lewisham to share with you some the work that we have taking to address issues of social exclusion and for, I hope, giving me some ideas that I'll be able to take home and share with colleagues back in London.
I stand here in the full knowledge that in Britain we have amongst the worst levels of Social mobility and highest levels of social exclusion in Europe.
In a massively diverse city like London this inequality is all too clear to see, but sadly continues to be unaddressed, in large part, by national and local government.
Polling shows us that social exclusion and inequality don’t appear on the list of top issues that concern British voters.
Yet in this room we will see first-hand the results and often the harsh realities that social exclusion bring.
Looking at my own borough of Lewisham, in the South East London, we are a growing population, now of 270,000.
We are an increasingly diverse population where, according to our 2011 census, our ethnic minority population now outnumbers our white British population for the first time.
But sadly we are one of the most deprived areas of Britain with parts of our community among the poorest 10% of locations in Britain.
The average male life expectancy of the residents I represent is 72 years, yet in the wealthiest parts of London it’s 85.
We have, despite having some outstanding schools and solid school results, the highest levels of youth unemployment in London
and in our political governance just 8 of our 54 elected Councillors are from black and ethnic minority groups.
But you'll know social exclusion is about more than statistics.
It’s different from poverty and inequality, but yet it combines the two.
It’s about access to education, employment and training.
It’s about how easily you can get to transport links.
It’s about the standard of your home, of your community.
It’s about race, gender and age.
It’s about whether our children will have a better chance in life, and whether our older generation can continue to live independently but not alone.
For us, and our political, Labour Party administration in Lewisham, social exclusion is a big deal.
It’s one of our key priorities and an area where we believe local government can play a part in shaping our community and improving the lives our residents.
One key area of concern of us is the exclusion from the job market of our young people and this is one area where we have had success through our new apprenticeship scheme.
The scheme was set up by our directly elected Mayor, Sir Steve bullock, in 2009 and 214 young people have now been placed in starter jobs in our Council and in local businesses learning vital skills for their futures.
The scheme is available for young residents, from Lewisham, who are aged 18-24 and we're using the fact in local government we provide so many different types of services to provide multi levels of opportunities for our young people.
So from new human resources professionals to housing officers, new events and communications assistants, animal welfare and food hygiene inspectors, gardeners to gravediggers.
We are putting our young people in roles across our council so they can pick up solid experience to add to their CV, and it's working.
But it does mean taking risks and does mean making investment.
We pay each of our apprentices an annual salary over £11,000, because providing free “internships” only benefits those young people with families who have the money to support them.
One third of our young people grow up in poverty so this isn’t an option for them.
Young people that go through our apprentice scheme in Lewisham leave it fit for work with skills they can take with them in the competitive search for jobs in London.
Like young people in Lewisham 75% of our young apprentices are from black and ethnic minority communities, many from deprived parts of our borough and we are able to open doors to them they would never usually be opened to them.
As Lewisham’s cabinet lead for equalities I believe tackling social exclusion starts at home and starts with our elected representatives and civic leaders.
We have simply got to look more like, and share the experiences of the communities we serve.
I spoke about our lack of diversity in our political governance in Lewisham.
It’s frustrating for me because week in, week out, I’ll be visiting community groups in our borough with leaders who are politically engaged, who are bright and who are strong advocates for their communities.
Yet when I ask those same people if they’ve thought of being a political representative they balk at the suggestion, it's something ‘other’ people do.
This experience which led us to create a programme alongside a London based campaigning organisation called Operation Black Vote to promote civic engagement within our black and ethnic minority communities.
Again, as with the apprentices, if programmes are to be done well you need to throw some money behind them and I’ll appreciate the budgetary constraints we’re all under.
Our programme cost around £100,000 but involved training, over a year, for 40 residents.
Over the course of the year we provided the participants with an insight into local government.
This didn’t just take the form of lectures and workshops, whilst we certainly did those types of activities, of more benefit to the participants was the mentoring scheme we developed so any participant who showed interest could shadow an existing elected member
Who I put under strict orders to show them not only the good side of being an elected representative but also the mundane realities that also form part of our role.
It's true to say that this put a lot, most, of our participants off!
But others left inspired
And again by investing money, and investing time, we have reaped positive rewards and graduates of our programme are now seeking selection to become candidates in next year’s local council elections.
In the 1970’s and 80’s Lewisham set up trailblazing schemes to resolve gender equality which a generation on have seen real results.
Of our current Labour Group of Councillors 18 out of 40 are women, and women make up the majority of our Cabinet.
Two of the three parliamentary representatives in Lewisham are women.
The management of the council is also reflected of this – three of the five members of the senior leadership team at the council are women.
I believe the success we’ve had in this area can be traced directly back to the positive action taken by my predecessors using schemes similar to what we’re using today in relation to black and minority ethnic communities.
Both our apprentice scheme and civic leadership programme address issues of social exclusion in a practical way.
They draw on the resources that we in local government have so we can get on with the job ourselves.
Too often we talk about action but don’t produce change and by some measures, particularly in terms of social class, Britain over the last 40 years is a nation with higher levers of social exclusion.
So we in Lewisham see ourselves as having a role and responsibility to step in, driving that change from the bottom up by empowering our communities and providing those opportunities for our residents to thrive.