Last week I was privileged to spend a day at the North of England Fairness commission conference in Blackpool's Tower Ballroom. Highlight of the day undoubtedly was the virtuoso unscripted speech by Professor Richard Wilkinson (co-author of "The Spirit Level") presenting the evidence that inequality is bad for everyone's health and well-being. One of the best nuggets was his condemnation of our culture where "we read personal wealth as an indicator of personal worth", a critique which resonates so well with the core values of Christian faith. With a large number of public health professionals present and presenting their concerns, the divide between the North of England and the London and South East region was highlighted in similar ways to the recent BBC TV "Mind the gap" Series. As London sucks in talented young people from around the globe, the north loses some of its best prospects, is hardest hit by cuts to local government spending, loses jobs because of its higher proportion of public sector employment, and is left with vulnerable industries (such as BAE systems in Lancashire, and the Barrow dockyard) relying on government defence contracts and the global arms trade. As stress and poverty rises health and well being fall, leaving a place like Blackpool with the lowest male life expectancy in the country.
Another fascinating feature of the conference was that a number of the speakers and participants were explicit about faith and values. Blackburn's director of public health using a powerpoint slide drawing on Leonardo Boff's liberation theology toexplain the different points at which change could be encouraged through popular, pastoral or political action. It is not the first time this link between faith and social action has been articulated in Blackpool. At a conference last November based around the findings of the Faith in the Community Report the leader of Blackpool Council publicly spoke about the threefold commitments of his life as a Labour Party activist, a residential social worker in a hostel for homeless people, and as a Christian believer in a local church. His hope was that through one or more of these he might make a difference to the social conditions in the town, and help to transform some peoples' lives. A similar event was also held in Preston where people of many faiths and none considered haw they might work better together to tackle local poverty.
These events suggest there is a opening up of spaces in the public sphere where faith and values can be openly articulated in the face of the current economic and political crisis and the policies which heap misery and destitution upon the poorest and most vulnerable members of society and the communities in which they are concentrated. Church leaders supporting symbolic protests of fasting against food poverty and provoking government anger at the national level are resonating with experience and conversations at the local level, in the North of England at least. This phenomenon has been described by Chris Baker of the William Temple Foundation as the interaction of Spiritual capital and progressive localism and suggests the emergence of the idea of progressive localism which suggests the emergence of new spaces of mutual engagement between outward-facing faith and secular organisations. These spaces, I conclude, represent new opportunities for faith communities to exercise innovative and creative forms of local political leadership.
But what would a progressive localism look like in the context of the North of England at this time. A reinvigoration of the powers of local authorities would obviously be helpful, including the right to set a Council tax rate according to local needs and political accountability. Preston Councillor Matthew Brown in a piece for New Start magazine argues that in the absence of a statutory living wage of £7.65 communities should have the freedom to set such a level themselves as a number of US cities already have done. He is also leading the moves to bring a new credit union for Preston called 'GuildMoney' which could soon be helping hard-up families escape the grasp of pay-day loan firms, and a scheme to invest council funds in a renewable local energy scheme which could bring both economic and environmental returns into the local economy. Through the city council's Social forum experiment there are opportunities for voluntary and faith sector groups, together with the trade unions to be involved in the conversations and governance of these projects. Though such broad based organising may be politically controversial they may among the best hopes that local communities and Christian social activists have in the cities of the North at a time when national government doesn't seem to care about poorer people in poorer communities, but rather intends to make them poorer still.