West Somerset is worst in the country for social mobility; here's what we do about it
The recently closed Wansbrough Mill Paper Mill in Watchet, West Somerset, photo credit: Glyn Jarrett
I was supposed to be on the Today programme this morning talking about social mobility in West Somerset, but I got bumped in the middle of the night because of some nonsense Trump said, or some story about the Royals that was more newsworthy. And this made me deflated, and also it made me angry—because I had something to say.
When I am angry, I find that writing things down is cathartic.
So this is what I would have said, had I been given the chance.
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This morning the Social Mobility Commission has launched a new report about (the lack of) opportunities in places like the one where I live. It explains that the main areas that are suffering across the country are those that are a) remotely rural, b) coastal and c) have lost their defining industry. Well whoop de doo. Go us. We got them all.
The rural and coastal aspects are backdrops that we cannot change and wouldn’t want to, but we were dealt a real blow at the end of 2015 when the industry that had defined our town for 250 years—a heavy manufacturing Paper Mill—closed its doors, with the loss of nearly 200 jobs.
Because of this unfortunate hat-trick, the average wage in West Somerset is the lowest of anywhere in England—it works out at about £16,000 a year—and in most cases this will be the single income for an entire household. And so, the report shows, West Somerset again has the lowest social mobility in the whole of England.
This means that disadvantaged kids born here have less chance to change their lives for the better than those living anywhere else. It is beautiful yes, but lives for many people in this ‘rural idyll’ are brutal and getting worse.
On all this, the report is damning. It carefully and intelligently explores the inequalities in modern Britain. It points out how ‘whole tracts of our country feel left behind, because they are.’ How ‘whole communities feel that the benefits of globalisation have passed them by, because they have’. How ‘whole sections of society feel they are not getting a fair chance to succeed, because they are not’. In West Somerset, we know all this: we are at the bottom of list.
The report also says that we, as a country, cannot go on like this. Something has to change. I agree wholeheartedly. But in this, as has been the lot of places like West Somerset for generations, we cannot expect anyone to solve the problems for us. We have to do that for ourselves. We have to pull ourselves up from the bottom, by our bootstraps. We have to shout loudly and make people listen. We have to find new ways to change the future, new ways to make the economy work where the traditional market model does not.
In Watchet, we are doing this through community business, using the best of an entrepreneurial spirit, combining it with a strong social purpose and holding it all together with the one thing we do have: community. My colleagues and I have established several social enterprises. They all have the same foundation: a refusal to accept that who you are, where you live and what you have, should be allowed to determine your access to opportunities—whether that is to jobs, to a decent education, to university, to cultural experiences or simply to do more than just survive.
But it’s true, it cannot go on like this. As the report also says, ‘tinkering with change will not do the trick […] something far bigger is needed’. It needs a revolution. Not a wholesale reorganisation of the economy—I firmly believe that in many cases the market has an incredible power to drive up opportunities and feed aspiration—but a recognition that in lots of places there is an ever more cavernous gap between what the market will deliver and what the state will provide. It needs a revolution in our thinking about how we solve these problems so that we do not ‘succumb to a weary sense of inevitability about our powerlessness’.
But asking the people who live at the bottom to change the world isn’t straightforward. It needs bravery, and honesty, and humility and new thinking.
The report makes clear that local government can positively influence outcomes for disadvantaged residents. But to me, it also must be central government’s job to help us to do so. In this context, the recommendations made are grossly insufficient. Suggesting that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy match the £72 million commitment of the Department of Education is a start. But it’s a drop in the ocean. It pales into utter insignificance compared to the billions being pumped into things like the Northern Powerhouse or the regional Local Economic Partnerships—none of which will trickle down to a place like West Somerset because the focus is regional not local.
Another piece of news yesterday was that financial services had paid a record £72 billion in tax to the government last year. BILLION. How about some of that gets sent here and we put it to good use?
Because, we have a plan to use it. Community business on a large scale can be the critical agent of change, sitting between the market and the state and supported by the people who need it. The Directors of Onion have established four social enterprises in the last seven years. Between them they have created around 20 new jobs. By the end of the year we will have submitted planning permission for the next step—to build a creative and enterprise development on land in Watchet on the quayside where we are the preferred developer. It has been supported by our local authority, which recognises its new role as an enabler of progress. The development will create somewhere between 30 and 60+ jobs. But that’s also not enough. We refuse to accept a future at the bottom and so we are building a partnership to work with some of the brightest and best business executives and progressive organisations in the UK to establish what a new industry for Watchet can be—to replace the jobs lost at the Mill. It must be an industry that will change the fortunes of this town, by placing the people who will work in it front and centre in its mission.
What do we need to make such a change, so that in the next report, and the one after, we are no longer bottom of the heap? I recently heard Gordon Seabright of the Eden project speak about leadership. He was talking about his one organisation but his insight applies just as well here. He identified three things. First, leadership is about providing people with resources when they don’t have them built-in. This is what we need from government now. Give us the resources to solve our problems: with £10 million in this town, we could transform the future of this place.
In fact, how about government thinks really differently? The report’s authors call for Government to devise an industrial strategy that marries economic and social policies and delivers an effective place-based approach to change. Well, what would happen if you took £10 million worth of taxes paid by one of those big city firms, but instead of removing them from how those taxes are put to work, we asked that same firm, with all its talent and resources, to work with us on our Industry for Watchet project? This would create a direct link between those at the top and those at the bottom, between those paying the taxes, and those using them to transform lives. It would tie us together in a powerful and ground-breaking endeavour to transform connections and opportunities. It would revolutionise the nature of the redistributive effort.
The second thing Gordon talked about was empowering people. What could be more so than building a whole industry for your town to overcome generations of inequality? And he finally, he talked convincingly about how the final building block of leadership is getting the obstacles out of the way. For me this should be the defining task of local government in the new austerity settlement. Local government has had its hands tied in terms of the resources it can offer to community and economic development but it can and should play the part it still has most capability to deliver: making it easier for people to get things done.
With this kind of leadership from the top, with genuine support and bravery of ambition, I believe community business has the power, even from the very bottom, to build a future full of extraordinary opportunities for our kids.
We just need to be given the chance.