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Power to tackle social mobility should be devolved to regions

There are 14.2m people in the UK living in poverty, including 4.5m children. Almost 60% of these people live in persistent poverty, meaning they were in poverty for at least two of the previous three years. These are some of the findings from the first report of the new Social Metrics Commission, that uses a new poverty measure.

Children born to poor parents face massive challenges and significant regional disparities in modern Britain. In December 2017, all remaining board members of the Social Mobility Commission resigned on mass due to the severe lack of progress made by consecutive governments towards a “fairer Britain”.

A report from a group of MPs in March on the future of the Social Mobility Commission argued that it needed to be revitalised and empowered to influence government social mobility policy in a more effective way. The reality remains, however, that without significant political willpower this is unlikely to achieve much in the short run – particularly with the majority of Whitehall departments totally absorbed with Brexit.

Read more: Poverty's impact on well-being is hard to ignore

I’ve argued that a more promising solution is a devolved policy approach, in which ownership of the social mobility “problem” and the design of social mobility policies are devolved to local government, communities and business. This was recently echoed by former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg who argued that geography “should be the new lens through which we must view social mobility”.

A shifting picture

To give a flavour of this “geographic lens”, I tapped into 2001 and 2011 census data for England and Wales to examine local occupational changes between the last two censuses. I used this to create a heat map which indicates different levels of managerial and professional employment for 25 to 34-year-olds in different local authorities. I chose this age range and employment level to reflect the government’s emphasis on the creation of high skilled “graduate” jobs for those leaving education – a crucial measure of social mobility.

As the heat map below shows, there is a vast regional disparity in the availability of these opportunities, with far more high-skilled graduate jobs in London and other metropolitan centres than elsewhere.

Proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds in employment who are in higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations. Census data from 2001 and 2011., Author provided

Yet, there are some signs that this situation is improving. Four of the top five regions which saw the greatest gains in terms of managerial and professional employment between 2001 and 2011 were non-London regions: Exeter, Gateshead, Oadby and Wigston and Barrow-in-Furness. London boroughs or surrounding regions suffered the worst declines.

Nonetheless, change is slow and regional differences can be vast. To highlight the scale of this let’s compare two areas. First, the City of Westminster in London, home to around 54,000 employed 25 to 34-year-olds in 2011, 29% of who held managerial or professional jobs. Second, north-east Lincolnshire, home to around 19,000 employed 25 to 34-year-olds in 2011, only 5% of who were employed in similar occupations.

Since occupations are often seen as a defining outcome of social mobility, the challenges faced by young people who wish to move up the social ladder in north-east Lincolnshire would appear to be significantly worse than for those in central London.

Power to local leaders

This is a problem because if future social mobility policies are to take on a more devolved nature, it’s essential to have better evidence on regional trends as a starting point. My own research has shown that national policies find it difficult to effectively promote social mobility. For example, raising the school leaving age from 15 to 16 in 1972 did little to change social mobility patterns.

I’m fully supportive of a future strategy where regional leaders take a more proactive approach to shape their own regional social mobility policy. One option would be for local councils to make business grants and subsidies conditional on achieving noticeable improvements in social mobility. Another would be to make local employers better aware of social mobility issues so they can start incorporating such themes into the way they do business.

Read more: How employers can boost social mobility by changing the way they recruit

The Social Mobility Employer Index is already scoring employers, who agree to take part voluntarily, on their engagement in key measures of social mobility. Initiatives such as this index are a great, practical way forward for employers to start engaging with social mobility – something that so far has only concerned high level people in government.

The diversity movement had a significant impact on shaping the practices of employers in the last 20 years with regards to gender, race, disability and sexual orientation in the workplace. Now is the time to make employers aware of the potentially profitable business case of recruiting from all class backgrounds in order to enact hiring and human resources policies that seek to take local social mobility into account.

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