Can’t see this catching on in East Devon, more’s the pity!
“It’s time to change politics,” says the Mayor of Salford, at a packed meeting of the Truth Poverty Commission in his home city. “Either politics is done to us, or we shape it.”
Since being elected a year ago, Mayor Paul Dennett has been radically reshaping the way things are done in Salford.
Last month he gave care workers a 10.7% pay rise. His town hall has given the go-ahead for seven new library sites at a time when many councils are closing them.
As other parts of the UK face maternity unit closures, the council has stepped in to ‘Keep Babies Born in Salford’ by opening a new midwife-led unit where 300 babies may now be delivered each year.
Salford has also invested £2million into a development company – in order to kickstart building of social housing that won’t fall under the government’s new Right To Buy policy. The company is called Derive – named after a joke involving revolutionary Italian situationists.
All of which looks like a blueprint for a Labour government, or what unashamedly interventionist Dennett calls “sensible socialism”.
The 36-year-old mayor is passionate about using his £200million budget to end poverty , partly because he has never forgotten what it feels like to come up the hard way, through a childhood he describes as at times “horrific” and something “I wouldn’t wish on anyone”.
Scarred by domestic abuse and his younger brother’s fight against leukaemia, he failed his GCSEs and A-levels and by 18 was working in a “sweat shop” call centre.
“I had an interesting journey,” he says wryly, at his offices in Swinton. “I grew up in a family where there was traumatic violence and abuse. My dad became an alcoholic and I struggled at school in my early teens.”
A power station fitter by trade, Paul’s dad went on to manage The Engine pub in Liverpool’s Prescot area, where his alcoholism began. Paul’s mum, a cleaner, ran the pub as her marriage disintegrated.
Later in life, Paul won a place to study International Business at the University of Ulster, where he achieved a first-class honours degree. He went on to Manchester Business school before doing a PhD at Manchester Met, working as a civil servant and then for a utilities company.
Now living in Salford – where he became a tenants’ leader and then a local councillor – as council leader he sees the Truth Poverty Commission as part of a new way of doing politics, with people’s consent.
Based on a model that has been used in Glasgow and Leeds, the Commissioners include people with experience of poverty.
“Consultation usually means organisations telling you about their plans,” says community worker Jayne Gosnall, 54, who is recovering from alcohol addiction. “This is about really listening to people with experience.”
The Commission is independent but supported by Salford City Council, the Mayor and the Bishop of Salford, and facilitated by Church Action on Poverty and Community Pride. It has led to the council bringing in a raft of measures that will transform lives – from waiving birth certificate fees for homeless people to changing the way the council chases debt.
Debbie Brown, transformation director at Salford City Council, says: “We come into these meetings and we hug each other – that’s not what normally happens in council meetings,” she says. “But the other thing that stopped me in my tracks was the City Council being identified as a cause of poverty.
“We heard stories about what it was like for people hiding from council tax collection agents, people being afraid, and that’s not a city I recognise.
“We’re changing a lot already. We’re going back to the personal, identifying people who are struggling to pay and looking again at what we can do.
“We won’t be using bailiffs for those in receipt of council tax reduction and young care leavers are exempt.”
Laura Kendall, 33, a mum of two and a youth worker, suffered undiagnosed mental health problems as a teenager and was placed in care.
“Sharing my story for this project was difficult but very powerful for me,” she says. “I want people to know their voices will be heard, that a child growing up in the care system can have a better chance.
“I’d spent my whole life trying to get people to listen to me and got used to being rejected. This area has been written off so many times but it’s full of people with something to add.”
Salford’s mayor is determined to listen. “This is about working-class communities coming together and a spirit of solidarity,” Dennett says. “It’s the spirit of Salford in action.”