Carl Les: Postcode lottery of opportunity holding back rural counties like North Yorkshire

Rural communities in North Yorkshire kiss out when it comes to social mobility, argues the County Councils Network.
Rural communities in North Yorkshire kiss out when it comes to social mobility, argues the County Councils Network.
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IT does not seem fair that a young person’s life chances are determined by the postcode they are born in. Unfortunately, this is the scenario facing too many young children in Yorkshire.

Their prospects are increasingly being shaped by their geography, rather than the traditional pillars of social mobility. If you are born in Skipton over the west side of North Yorkshire, your life chances are greater than had you been born in Scarborough on the opposite side. The council is making every effort within its means to address this disparity, but the issue remains.

More needs to be done to help young people fulfil their potential in towns like Scarborough, according to a new report.

More needs to be done to help young people fulfil their potential in towns like Scarborough, according to a new report.

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The Social Mobility Commission’s recent work has brought social mobility to the fore of the political agenda, but too little focus has been given to county areas. This is why today’s report from the County All-Party Parliamentary Group is important.

It shows that the least socially mobile areas in England are counties. It makes a powerful argument that the false perception of counties as affluent – and therefore with few socio-economic issues – has held back social mobility in counties.

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While North Yorkshire is unique in the sense it is the only county with both a social mobility ‘hotspot’ (Craven) and a ‘cold-spot’ (Scarborough), it contains many obstacles to social mobility that will be familiar to county politicians.

This county is the largest in England; containing the full range of complex communities; spanning urban, rural, and coastal. Travel is longer and more expensive.

While the county performs well for early-years provision and getting children ‘school-ready’, and while it is doing much to narrow the gap in attainment for low-income families, a gap persists. It is further upstream, during the teenage school-leaving years, that there is a lack of options for 16 to 24-year-olds.

North Yorkshire is one of the top authorities in the country in the national youth opportunity index – in terms of employment and training opportunities and educational outcomes for young people – and top of Yorkshire and the Humber. But this also masks disparities in our large county. Finally, a sizeable chunk of our skilled students leave for university and some never return.

County local authorities are not standing idly by on these issues, but are finding it increasingly difficult to tackle them when their budgets are increasingly spent on care. On average, two-thirds of a county’s budget is swallowed up by the care of adults and children.

Today’s report outlines the conundrum we face: how can counties raise social mobility in their areas during a period of unprecedented financial restraint with limited powers to make a difference?

On top of this, the current funding formula for councils is further hampering areas like North Yorkshire in investing in public services to improve social mobility. The County Councils Network’s analysis shows that counties received £182 per person for services in this year; with London receiving £482 per person, and urban areas receiving £351 per person.

This imbalance, which favours urban areas at the expense of rural ones, is at a great cost to raising social mobility in the county. Without a fairer share of funding we are increasingly constrained in our ability to invest in our economies and move away from low-skilled, low-wage jobs.

The Yorkshire Post has campaigned hard to improve the North’s infrastructure. Figures show that London receives 55 per cent of all identifiable funds from the National Infrastructure Pipeline despite being home to less than five per cent of the country’s roads.

Today’s APPG report finds that inadequate travel infrastructure is a major barrier to social mobility – as rural people can’t travel to high-skilled or high productivity work, university, or college effectively – and without a fair share of investment it is hard to see how we can remove these barriers.

We know the Government’s fair funding review is progressing in the right direction, but it is important that the rhetoric of Ministers is backed up by action.

However, funding alone clearly won’t be the answer. The Government should outline a more flexible approach to county devolution deals to support social mobility, and such deals should not be dependent upon signing up for an elected mayor.

Considering the strategic nature and size of county authorities, the Government should devolve skills powers and budgets to counties as it has done for metro-mayors; the ability to respond to skills challenges and shortages. Sheffield City region comes out with low social mobility in the report, but Dan Jarvis has the tools at his disposal to begin addressing those issues.

It is time to move away from the perception of counties as wealthy areas and address the real pockets of low attainment and deprivation in our communities. A reset of funding for rural authorities is needed.

Councillor Carl Les is the Tory leader of North Yorkshire County Council. He is also the County Councils Network’s spokesman for children’s services and education.