Breaking Yorkshire devolution 'deadlock' could help tackle region's social mobility problem

The Government's social mobility tsar has called for a shake-up of the Government's devolution agenda as he suggested breaking the deadlock in Yorkshire could be key to tackling the region's mobility 'coldspots'.

Experts warn of a 'self-reinforcing spiral' of division
Experts warn of a 'self-reinforcing spiral' of division

Marking the launch of the Social Mobility Commission’s fifth State of the Nation report, chairman Alan Milburn said ministers need to rethink the “focus” of devolution deals to include more rural areas if they are serious about boosting opportunities for disadvantaged young people.

His comments came as the commission warned that isolated coastal communities and post-industrial towns in regions like Yorkshire are at risk of becoming “entrenched social mobility coldspots” as geographical divisions continue to “spiral”.

This is in contrast with deprived inner-city boroughs like Tower Hamlets and Hackney, many of which are now outstripping wealthy rural shires on the social mobility scale.

The State of the Nation report, which has been published annually since 2013, ranks all 324 local authorities in England in terms of their social mobility prospects for someone from a disadvantaged background. It uses 16 indicators for every major life stage to map the country’s mobility hotspots and coldspots.

This year’s findings show London in particular is pulling away when it comes to improving opportunities for young people, while areas like Scarborough and rural West Yorkshire are being left further behind.

London boroughs account for 20 of the top 35 hotspots, while five areas in the Yorkshire and the Humber region are listed among the bottom 35 coldspots.

The commission claims these divisions have become a “self-reinforcing spiral”, pointing to poor transport links and a historic imbalance in regional spending as contributing factors. It lists a number of recommendations to be enacted on a national and local level, including greater collaboration between schools – but in a specific reference to Yorkshire it notes that “break[ing] the devolution deadlock” would be a “good first step”.

Speaking at yesterday’s launch, Mr Milburn would not be drawn on whether the current stand-off is holding Yorkshire back. However, he stressed the benefits of empowering “local people... to make the right decisions for their areas” before going on to suggest the current devolution agenda is “far too limited” .

“Of the cold spot areas, only five are currently covered by a devolution deal,” he said. “That may be because the Government has... in the first instance focussed on big populations in metropolitan cities

“[But] if you ask me to rank where the problem is, it’s less in cities and more in the vast bulk of Yorkshire.

“So the Government needs to rethink what the geographical focus is for these sort of devolution deals... instead of just cities it should be on areas, particularly rural and remote areas.”

Yorkshire “coldspots” include Scarborough, Doncaster and Barnsley, with Craven listed as the region’s only “hotspot”. Responding to the report, Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis said it highlights “a stark postcode lottery” in which the people of Yorkshire are rarely winners.

“There are many reasons why this is the case, not least the stark political and economic inequalities that exist between North and South,” he said. “Devolution can provide a means by which we address Yorkshire’s social mobility challenges; it is through devolved powers, local partnerships, sound investment and a powerful national voice that Yorkshire can best unlock our potential.”

Education Secretary Justine Greening said the findings “underline the importance of focusing our efforts in more disadvantaged areas”. “We are making progress –there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010 [and] disadvantaged young people are entering universities at record rates,” she said.