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All in this together?

09 November 2012

IN BARNET Council, they call it the "graph of doom". It shows that, if nothing else changes, the cost of local-government social care will consume the entire council budget by 2028. At the same time as pressures rise on expenditure, pressures on income are even more worrying: some are even predicting that, in the coming years, local government will face a cut of up to 40 per cent in its budget from the national pot.

It is against this background that a number of councils - Newcastle, York, Islington, Blackpool - have set up Fairness Commissions, in part to look at what fairness can look like for a community when austerity has so much further to go. This week, I began chairing one for Tower Hamlets, in east London.

Richard Wilkinson, the co-author of The Spirit Level (Penguin, 2010), is the inspiration behind a great deal of the Fairness Commission project. The basic idea of his book is that equality is good not just for the least well off, but for all of society, including the wealthy. Even the rich suffer when there is a huge gap between rich and poor. This is because inequality erodes community and communal trust.

On so many levels - health, levels of violence, happiness - a less equal society fails. Tower Hamlets is probably one of the most unequal places in Europe. It has the highest rate of child poverty in the country, and yet the average income of those who work in the borough is £58,000 - the average! And to explain: Canary Wharf is in Tower Hamlets.

Professor Wilkinson chaired the Islington Fairness Commission, which recommended that the council pay its lowest-paid staff the London Living Wage as a minimum (Comment, 2 November). Tower Hamlets already does this. Indeed, the thing of which I am probably most proud at St Paul's was that I persuaded the cathedral to do the same. This week, the London Living Wage went up to £8.55.

One question is how to pay for all of this, and indeed pay for so much that the local authority does to help a community to flourish. But going on from here is the issue how to encourage the community to develop deeper resources of resilience (a big policy buzz-word in local government) to withstand the deepening effects of austerity.

This, of course, is where churches, mosques, and other religious organisations come in. But it is also where business comes in. Unless the bankers of Canary Wharf want to look out of their huge glass towers on to a sea of surrounding poverty, from whose anger they will inevitably need protecting, they must see this as their problem, too.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.

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