Islington: a community powered approach to inequality

New Local has been working with Islington Council’s Inequality Taskforce to launch a bold new approach in one of London’s most deprived boroughs. We spoke to the taskforce members to unpack the thinking behind the project.

In this conversation:

  • Councillor Nurullah Turan, Chair of the Inequality Task Force
  • Neil Tester, former Director of the Richmond Group of Charities
  • Dr Torange Khonsari, Researcher and Course Leader at London Metropolitan University
  • Hayley Sims, Strategic Lead for Policy and Equality at Islington Council
  • Tracey Tynan, Director of Communications, New Local

Tracey: Thank you all so much for making time to talk to us today. First of all, for those not familiar with the area, could you tell us a bit about the particular challenges you have around inequality in Islington?

Cllr Turan: The reality of the situation in Islington is very different to how it looks from the outside – when you mention Islington people usually think of a very nice place to live. But levels of deprivation are extremely high. We are the sixth most deprived borough in London and we have very affluent areas immediately next to deprived areas. So you’ll have a square with multimillion pound homes, with one social housing building, side by side.

Men who live in the most deprived areas of Islington are expected to live almost 10 years less than those in the least deprived, well above the London average. 28% of our under 16s are living in low-income households – the highest proportion in London – and 34% of over 60s. If you’re on Upper Street for example, one of our best-known streets, you’ll see wonderful cafes and bars, but very few families with children. Because they can’t afford it. The real life is just behind Upper Street, the people there have got many issues from housing to repairs to income.

That’s why what we are doing with this taskforce is extremely important. We already face enormous challenges in Islington but with the winter looming ahead we know the complexity of these challenges will be increasing and we need to be ready to support our communities.

Image created by graphic scribe for the Islington Inequality Taskforce.

Tracey: You’ve been running your community engagement process called Let’s Talk Islington for some time. And you just touched on the Inequality Taskforce which ran alongside it – how did that come about?

Cllr Turan: We set out on this process at a real turning point for Islington. We’ve had years of austerity, a pandemic, a new Council leader, and we’re a decade on from the pioneering fairness commission in 2011. So all of that came together. It is incredibly timely now, with the cost of living crisis that we are all feeling.

We learnt a lot from the evidence that really meaningful change in communities is crucially built on trust and authenticity. And that’s what we’ve been talking about, how to build that trust and the way we work with our communities.

We knew it would be important to listen closely to people’s life experiences. We’ve spoken to thousands of people through Let’s Talk Islington to capture that locally rooted knowledge. But it was also important to get expertise from beyond Islington, to challenge our thinking, and offer fresh perspectives. People like Neil and Torange. The taskforce is bringing all these great minds together with those who experience inequality on the ground, trying to learn as much as we can before we press ahead.

…this needed to be much more than just a shiny 18-month initiative. This needs to be a long-term process that really drives change.

Neil Tester

Tracey: The taskforce has proposed an approach to meet some of the inequality challenges in Islington which has a focus on ‘agency’. Could you tell us about what that means?

Neil: We started by looking at what we already knew, from council data, public health data and pre-existing community engagement work. We combined that insight with experience from lots of people around the table, including people from the local voluntary and community sector. All of that got us thinking quite quickly that the real issue is about power.

Inequality clearly has a fundamental connection with money, but it’s far more than that. For example, if you’re living with multiple health conditions, you don’t see that as being separate from all of the other challenges in your life, your housing, your employment, the support you get from your family – all of those things are part of one big picture.

We wanted to address these issues of inequality in the round. And that’s why we saw power and control and agency very much at the heart of this.

Then we started to discuss what would be the most effective things for the council to focus on to turn some of this into real change for people. We looked at how we could apply this lens to a number of traditional policy areas such as housing or employment.

…the timing for this work couldn’t be better. There’s something here in Islington that hopefully will be a beacon of light in these difficult times

Councillor Nurullah Turan

We soon realised that there were two problems. One was the fact that while the council had significant influence, many of the controlling factors came from national government. The statutory responsibilities of both the council and other public sector organisations would complicate matters, and issues in the wider economy could potentially derail anything that we were trying to do.

The other aspect was that this needed to be much more than just a shiny 18-month initiative. This needs to be a long-term process that really drives change. We thought the best contribution we could make would be to find something that would really be catalytic to enable that change, and have a ripple effect through everything the council does. That’s what landed us on this focus around agency and power.

Torange: I have to say as somebody who’s given consultancy in many public spheres, this was by far the most exciting for me, because it really did not look superficially at the issues. We landed on this because it’s a systemic element. Systemic things are very hard to shift. But when they happen, and they can happen, they are really significant.

One of the main things if we’re talking about system change is service provision. We talked about that power relationship. Service giving is not that empowering, because it creates a dependency culture in a setting where there simply isn’t enough resources. The council’s role needs to shift instead towards collaboration and facilitation.

All these systems need mapping to see what we have to change to comply with a more empowering, agency-giving approach. It’s a crafting process. But I think once we get these systemic things right, then honestly, you will start to see mental health improvements. Because if you’re in a system where you have agency, where you feel valued, that’s where you start to actually address a lot of the inequalities that we’ve been talking about.

This work won’t happen overnight and we need to start within the council itself – we need a really clear framework for how we will equip our workforce to bring these ideas to life.

Hayley Sims

Neil: Torange has put it beautifully. Another driver was that we wanted to avoid this becoming something where different interests started playing off against each other. We wanted it to be something that was inclusive, and that everybody across the borough, whatever their role and wherever they are on the income and power spectrum could feel that they were part of.

Tracey: As you start to move forward, how do you envisage these concepts being implemented in practice?

Hayley: From a council level, the key thing is making it real for people, how we articulate this to the whole range of stakeholders who we want to really live and breathe it. We need to start mobilising our staff and communities around this idea that putting power in residents’ hands to tell their own stories about their local areas is going to be vital to keeping communities afloat in the coming years.

This work won’t happen overnight and we need to start within the council itself – we need a really clear framework for how we will equip our workforce to bring these ideas to life. As Torange and Neil have said, we need to look holistically to see where different bits of this work sit and how they supplement each other across the entire system, while making sure on the ground officers understand their role.

Tracey: What challenges do you anticipate as you start to take this forward?

Neil: We talked a lot about how to measure progress and impact. I’m very pleased that the report focuses on the crucial role of people’s lived experience, their own assessment of whether things are changing.

Taskforce on Inequality in Islington Final Report

We also discussed the need for a shared narrative, both at the outset and all the way through the long term work. So if you are someone in the community, in any bit of the council, you ask any of the council’s partners, they will have a shared sense of what the expected outcomes are.

Inevitably there will be bumps in the road. For the council, the challenge is going to be keeping an eye on future outputs, while also tackling the very immediate crises in people’s lives and the compromises the council will have to make to deal with those. I think there’ll be some really interesting discussions about leadership and direction.

At the community and partnership levels, this is not going to work if the council says ‘we’ve done a lot of fantastic work, and now this is how we are going to work with you’. Groups need time to form and bond and start to talk. In time, they can mutually support each other, draw on each other’s assets – for example, the great stuff the NHS is doing around community connector roles and health inequalities – and leverage the power that the council can bring to this work.

Ultimately, we’re talking about a culture shift, a systems-level shift, that will translate down to making Islington a more welcoming place, a safer place, for everyone.

Councillor Nurullah Turan

Tracey: You had some really nice creative engagement projects as part of Let’s Talk Islington – can you tell us about those, and how successful they were in drawing out that local knowledge and experience?

Hayley: I was just thinking about that ongoing role of the citizens we’ve engaged in keeping this work on track and offering continuing challenge. That was our intention when we were designing the engagement approach. We had a tiered approach with the standard mass engagement survey and some community workshops. But we also wanted to target some specific cohorts where we knew that there was a dearth of data or particularly acute levels of poverty – for example, young people and people over the age of 55.

We wanted people to feel they were sharing their stories with us on their own terms and getting to the heart of what’s important to them. What we found, with groups young and old, was that the process itself was often as important as the outputs. People felt like their stories were really valued and realised their voices were important. We’re now thinking about how we can maintain those relationships.

Visual expression of a fair and equal Islington created by under 18s

Tracey: The Let’s Talk Islington project and taskforce report has now been officially launched, so what happens next?

Hayley: We’re now writing a 2030 plan that incorporates all the learning so far and sets out a more defined roadmap to achieving a more equal Islington. It will all centre on the goal of developing the influence that people have over the decisions that affect them.

Really importantly, it will also include the commitment to growing community power in Islington, and continuing to innovate and challenge ourselves in the space.

This is just a start I feel. We absolutely don’t want it to be a strategy that ends up sitting on a shelf. People have to feel they are a part of this. The will is there, the determination is there and we have great people in the group who are pushing it forward.

Cllr Turan: As Neil said, the timing for this work couldn’t be better. There’s something here in Islington that hopefully will be a beacon of light in these difficult times with all these challenges ahead of us.  

Ultimately, we’re talking about a culture shift, a systems-level shift, that will translate down to making Islington a more welcoming place, a safer place, for everyone.

Working with older people: Hornsey Lane Estate Community Association
We worked with researchers from London Metropolitan University to take a storytelling approach with a group of older people. A lot of time was put into bonding socially as a group, to make them feel like they were really part of something. We wanted to get a sense of their lives and show them that we were really interested to hear their stories. Through the process they started to draw out what felt really important about their stories. And then we encouraged them to find a memento that really signified something about their lives in Islington. It culminated in a celebration day where they told their story in front of the camera, they held up their mementos and we took professional photographs. Those were then displayed in our launch exhibition and they were all invited to come and see their work displayed, which is now going to be moved to another community location.

Through this process a lot came up around worries for future generations and young people – that level of care that exists intergenerationally, which was really fascinating. We’ll be weaving that into our thinking.

‘Celebrating ageing in Islington’, Let’s Talk Islington launch exhibition

Anthropology approaches in primary schools
Around a third of children in Islington are living in income-deprived households. We worked with anthropology researcher Dr Kelly Fagan Robinson to develop a project where she taught basic anthropological methods to young people in a couple of different primary schools, in areas with particularly high levels of deprivation. They used techniques like taking photos of their surroundings or sketching what was going on around them, as a way to articulate their viewpoint. This had the joint benefit of us being able to see what they felt about the place, but also building in that gift to children to be able to share their voice and realise that their voice is important. Teachers fed back that it worked particularly well with children who often aren’t as loud in the classroom.

Annabelle Kapoor, headteacher of Drayton Park Primary, was also on the taskforce. From the start she was urging us to integrate the voices of children, saying ‘they’re wise beyond their years’. That kind of direct simplicity can be extremely powerful.

Featured photo by Steve Bainbridge.

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