West Somerset, where I grew up, has the lowest social mobility in the country. This means that disadvantaged children living here have the least chance of changing their futures of anyone anywhere else in England. For the last two weeks, on the back of the State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility Commission that identified this sorry situation, the media have been taking an interest in what happens here and why it is like this.
But, if, like me, you live and work here, and have children growing up here, the more pressing concern is what we do about it. And yet, just at the point when we have some attention and it looks like progress might be made, the whole Social Mobility Commission has resigned en masse, citing government’s inability and perhaps indifference to act as the reason. So where does this leave us? With the prospect of not much for a year or so while Westminster thinks about who to appoint as ‘new blood’ and no doubt, considers what the new remit should be.
But here, in West Somerset, we haven’t got time to wait around.
So instead we’re getting on with doing something as a community. It means fighting against a situation in which what you have, where you live and who you are determines your possibilities – whether that is in going to university, getting a decent purposeful job, accessing culture or following your dreams. Understandably, because education is so vital to mobility, and because the Department for Education appears to be the part of government taking the challenge most seriously, much of the energy so far has been on improving schools. This is critical but on its own is insufficient. The issues here are three-fold. It is not education, education, education, it is: education, aspiration and opportunity.
As I have said many times in the last two weeks, it is not just about giving the brightest kids a way to get out, it is about giving every young person growing up here the chance to fulfil their potential. This means changing the approach locally, not just encouraging a brain drain.
Next week, we will submit planning permission for an extraordinary community-led development that will do just that. It is located on the quayside in Watchet, the most deprived town in this place with the lowest social mobility. It is intentionally ambitious. It focuses on enterprise, creativity and culture. Most of all it is about opportunity and aspiration. It will be home to more than 15 entrepreneurs and innovative organisations across social enterprise, culture, geology, and industry – recognising the ample evidence that businesses which cluster and collaborate generate more innovation and growth. It will house an art gallery bringing inventiveness, originality, and talent to Watchet - firing imaginations and challenging perceptions. It will offer apprenticeships in social enterprise, arts management, paper-making and ecology. It will create at least 30 jobs. It has been designed by one of the most inspiring architects in the country, Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio. Not so bad for a place that’s apparently bottom of the heap.
Importantly, the development, and all our work at Onion Collective, recognises that what people want from life - millennials and generation Z’s even more than any others - comes in all shapes and sizes, and that purpose, innovation and creativity are key to successful economy and fulfilling lives. It will cater to all these ideas and it will change the notion of what is possible in West Somerset. It reflects our passionate belief that where you live should not undermine equality of opportunity and that our isolated rural community has as much right to and need for high-quality and challenging creative and enterprise options as those who live in the country’s cultural and economic centres. It is about building a stronger economy, but it is just as much about increasing engagement, aspiration and pride.
The development is designed to be self-sustaining once up and running. It makes the most of the tourism pound to cross-subsidise those parts that are not money-spinners – offering a fabulous new restaurant with views over our picturesque marina, and beautiful jewel-like places to stay where people can come to experience all we love about this town. The challenge now is to fund the capital build cost - £6 million. The local Council is enabling the whole project by working in partnership with us and providing the land. We will be looking to the Coastal Communities Fund from the Department of Communities and Local Government and we will be seeking support from EDF, who are building Hinkley Point C down the road, through their Community Impact Mitigation Fund. We are working to build relationships with benefactors countrywide who have an interest in improving lives and the generosity of spirit to help us to do that. But we also cannot afford to wait much longer. Too many young people are losing out on their futures while people wring their hands and make strategies. So we will be writing to the Departments of Education; Business, Energy and Industrial Affairs; and Culture, Media and Sport to ask for their support. They could get this going in a matter of weeks if they wanted.
We hope their ambition to transform lives matches ours.
We have had enough of waiting.
Read more about the plans for Watchet's East Quay development here