Caught in a spiral of ever-growing division
WEST Somerset is again at the bottom of the latest Social Mobility Index for England, which sets out the differences between where disadvantaged children grow up and the chances they have of doing well in adult life.
The index is at the heart of the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report published on Tuesday. It ranks the social mobility prospects for someone from a disadvantaged background in all 324 local authorities – and West Somerset was bottom of the index, as it was 2016. The report said a stark ‘postcode lottery’ exists in Britain today, where the chances of someone from a disadvantaged background succeeding in life is bound to where they live. It said there was a striking geographical divide in which London and its surrounding areas were pulling away from the rest of the country.
“Too many rural and coastal areas and the towns of Britain’s old industrial heartlands are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially,” said Alan Milburn, the Social Mobility Commission chairman. “The country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division - a less divided Britain will require a more redistributive approach to spreading education, employment and housing prospects across our country.”
The report’s Social Mobility Index uses a range of 16 indicators for every major life stage, from children’s early years through to availability of top jobs, pay, housing, transport and more. West Somerset was one of three areas where there were poor social mobility prospects across all working life measures. In these areas, residents face high costs of housing alongside poor outcomes on jobs and pay.
Low paid jobs such as retail and food services are concentrated in particular areas and in West Somerset,more than four in ten people earn less than the voluntary living wage compared with one in four nationally. The average wage here is £312, less than half the £670 average weekly earnings in the best paid areas in England.
Three sectors make up 57 per cent of lowpaid jobs generally – restaurants and hotels, retail and wholesale, health and social care. In West Somerset, jobs in these sectors make up 52 per cent of total jobs in the area, compared with 36 per cent in England overall and only 24 per cent in Wokingham, the best performing area of this working life stage. One in four jobs in West Somerset is in accommodation and food services, compared with one in 20 in Wokingham.
The report found that residents of England’s coastal areas experience extremely poor outcomes for social mobility in their working lives.
One of the main reasons is that these areas, over a fifth of England’s local authorities, all suffer from poor transport links.
“The role of transport is critical in connecting people to jobs and wider services . . . some pockets of England, including the worst performing areas such as West Somerset, are not served well enough by public transport,” the report said. It also said the area’s rurality and lack of quality jobs have a negative impact on schooling, and West Somerset has very poor educational results for disadvantaged children. Only 27 per cent of them achieve the expected standard at Key Stage 2 and the Attainment 8 score is only 35.
“However, it is one of the Government’s Opportunity Areas and has received targeted support in the past through the Somerset Challenge, drawing on good practice from the London Challenge,” the report said.
“The Regional School Commissioner is working to boost the capacity of multi-academy trusts active in the region with a view to increase collaboration between schools.” The West Somerset Opportunity Area Partnership Board was set up to develop plans and projects to improve social mobility in West Somerset as one of 12 Opportunity Areas across the country. Its chairman, Dr Fiona McMillan, told the Free Press this week: “Social mobility is a complex issue spanning generations and influenced by many different factors – it will take time to make an impact and success will be measured over years.
“We welcome the funding made available by Government and the commitment shown by all the partners involved. We have a plan with targets and good work is already underway. “Our priorities cover everything from the support that children get in their early years to preparing young people for the world of work, expanding their horizons and aspirations along the way. “West Somerset has a great a quality of life and we have every confidence that in time the Opportunity Area work will improve the outcomes for the area’s young people.”
A statement from West Somerset Council in response to the report said: “It is obviously disappointing to be ranked so low but as a rural area, with an ageing population, lacking a major urban centre, having few large employers, the area will score far lower than many others due in most part to the inability to access the types and range of services that less rural areas are able to.” The statement listed a number of issues which affected West Somerset’s economy, including the high cost of fuel, high house prices, generally low incomes and high numbers of self-employed, lack of access to higher education, lack of mainline rail links and lack of good transport links with no quick or easy access to the M5 and narrow A roads with ‘super pinch-points’. “I am sure that there are other sparsely populated rural areas but, because they have been absorbed into larger districts, they do not show up so starkly on the social mobility index,” said council leader, Cllr Anthony Trollope-Bellew. “The council is not complacent . . . on the employment and skills side there are a number of initiatives to help the most vulnerable of our communities back into training and employment,” the council statement said. “Some of the most effective activity that can make a long lasting difference is communitydriven action, and to that end we have pumpprimed initiatives that have led to job outcomes. Economic development continues to be a council priority. “Unfortunately, many of the West Somerset sectors linked to care, tourism and retail, as well as farming, are traditionally lower paid.
“However the district is also home to some companies in the higher productivity sector [and] as regards Hinkley Point C, West Somerset Council is working hard to ensure local businesses and the local community can win contracts and jobs during the construction period.”
Local MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said the latest statistics were deeply disappointing but made it all the more important that the extra resources for education which the Government was providing were delivered to where they were needed and spent as rapidly as possible.
He said the current situation had come about partly through a failure to attract new employers to the district. “Unfortunately, we have never really recovered from the loss of Clarks shoe factory in Minehead and one by one other such employers have vanished – the last was Watchet paper mill – leaving West Somerset increasingly reliant on tourism. “That’s a very fragile situation to be in - wages in tourism are among the lowest and since it’s the dominant local sector it tends to set the benchmark for all other employment. “We appear to have been very good at attracting supermarkets here but less expert at attracting employers who are going to offer more than limited part-time contracts. That’s something we need to address as a matter of urgency.
“West Somerset is a very attractive environment in which to do business and the area’s young people have a well-deserved reputation for being excellent employees.
But that’s not enough. “If companies are going to relocate or branch out here they need good communications and no one can pretend that West Somerset is wellconnected with the rest of the country when it’s at least a 40- minute journey to get to the motorway and, although there is a rail link to the national network, there are no trains.” He said West Somerset Railway could make a valuable economic contribution in providing a mix of tourist traffic and regular commuter services between Minehead and Taunton. And the “grossly substan- dard” A358 and A39 acted as economic strangleholds and “we must start fighting for road improvements – the first target must be the by-pass for Williton, Washford, Bilbrook and Carhampton which was designed, approved and then scrapped nearly 25 years ago”. Paul Rushforth, chief executive officer of the West Somerset Academies Trust which is responsible for six schools in the West Somerset area, said: “One might wonder, since we are bottom of the league for social mobility, why according to the Office for National Statistics, the people of West Somerset are amongst the happiest in England (fourth).
“If you work in schools, for instance, you can enjoy national (and above) pay rates and one of the most beautiful landscapes in Britain.
“For many, West Somerset is a great place to live and raise children. The additional support of the Opportunity Area can only make it even better.”
By SUE MITCHINSON. West Somerset Free Press, Friday December 1st 2017