The corporate director for community engagement and wellbeing role is one that goes to the very heart of Islington LBC’s mission to make the borough a more equal place.
This vibrant and diverse inner London borough sums up the capital’s conundrum – extreme affluence and poverty sit side by side. A place where average property prices are among the most expensive in the country’s and yet 40% of children live below the poverty line.
For Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, Islington born and bred, closing the gap is the lens through which the council must view all its services and she believes the new corporate director will have the ideal environment to make that happen.
‘Whoever gets this role needs to be thinking every day, how do we tackle inequality and deliver for residents through early intervention and prevention? This has to be the focus of everything we do as a council in every aspect of our work.
‘But they won’t be coming in and starting from scratch. We’ve done amazing work around inequality and what the community engagement and wellbeing service is about is taking those pockets of excellence and putting them together in what I see as an engine room for delivering real change. The service will implement change across the council.’
For more than a decade the council has built a reputation for challenging inequality. It set up the UK’s first Fairness Commission in 2011, which was followed by the Islington Employment Commission and Fair Futures Commission.
But disadvantage persists and it has deepened since the pandemic, says Cllr Comer-Schwartz, which is why an even more direct and bold approach is required.
The new corporate director will deliver the Challenging Inequality Programme, which will see the council’s overriding vision turned into deliverable actions on the ground.
They will also lead development of three new Access Islington Hubs to bring information, advice and support closer to residents while making better use of the borough’s many community spaces. It’s part and parcel of a concerted effort to better understand the needs of local people and open the door to support at a much earlier stage.
‘During Covid we set up a helpline for residents and one of the key pieces of learning was how it gave people the time and space to speak to us. I want people to come into their local hub. They might come in about a leak in their flat but end up talking about other issues such as loneliness and isolation.
‘That’s why as well as key areas like communications coming into their remit, we also have libraries, heritage, culture and community centres. The right person could really take those elements and do something incredible with them for the borough.’
Like most local authorities, Islington has had to deal with significant cuts to its core budget. But Cllr Comer-Schwartz believes councils ultimately have a choice – do they contract and simply deliver the statutory minimum or intervene and raise the bar on ambition?
‘We have a health and social care strategy based on early intervention and we could just be a council that’s focused on social care. But I want to know how we’re applying prevention and early intervention to things like air quality.
‘Our children’s services are rated outstanding but we’re thinking, what’s next? How can we make them even better?
‘I want someone who gets that and has the drive, energy, ideas and resident focus to make life better and more equal in Islington. They will need to demonstrate real evidence that they have transformed services to have equity at their heart as well as experience of engagement and partnership working both with organisations and residents.’
One of their key responsibilities will be to build closer links with key partners such as the voluntary and cultural sectors.
‘In Islington we are extremely blessed,’ Cllr Comer-Schwartz explains. ‘We have such a myriad of people with expertise in their field who are supporting residents in a range of ways. We need to view the voluntary sector not in a paternalistic way but as a key partner who bring their insights to the table.’
She believes one of Islington’s greatest strengths is the depth of community spirit, which together with a strong and focused council provides a powerful platform for progress.
‘I was born here and raise my children here, and I think it’s a brilliant place. We talk to our neighbours and look after each other! When people ask what’s special about Islington that’s what I immediately think of.
‘So this person will be building on a foundation of decades of investment in people caring about each other. Also, we have political stability so there isn’t uncertainty and it brings depth to our relationships with residents and partners.
‘They will have the space to do brilliant things.’
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