Farewell social mobility

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 4.

One instinctive reaction to the news over the weekend that Alan Milburn and his fellow Social Mobility Commissioners have resigned is a simple question: what took you so long?

After all, what was then the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission was the creation of Nick Clegg, with the idea that they would hold the current and future future governments to account.

It always looked a tough job when the former deputy prime minister’s coalition chums seemed hell-bent on increasing child poverty and reducing social mobility after 2010.

After the 2015 election, when Clegg and most of his Lib Dem colleagues lost their seats, the child poverty bit was taken out so that the commission could concentrate on the more Conservative-sounding and more convenient part of its brief.

That is just as well for them as child poverty is now rising again in the face of stagnant wages, rising rents and frozen benefits but it seemed there was still a job to be done in ensuring that government paid attention to wider social concerns.

And when Theresa May became prime minister in 2016 her themes of correcting ‘burning injustices’ and ‘a country that works for everyone’ it seemed that it might be worth the commissioners hanging around to help.

That came to an end on Saturday night when Milburn and three other commissioners, including former Tory Cabinet minister Gillian Shepherd, tendered their resignations (Downing Street claims he jumped before he was pushed).

His letter to the prime minister told Theresa May:

‘I do not doubt your personal belief in social justice, but I see little evidence of that being translated into meaningful action. The need for political leadership in this area has never been more pressing. Whole communities and parts of Britain are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially. The growing sense that we have become an “us and them” society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation.

‘The 20th-century expectation that each generation would do better than the last is no longer being met. At a time when more and more people are feeling that Britain is becoming more unfair rather than less, social mobility matters more than ever.’

What seems to lie behind the resignations is a growing frustration about posts that were left unfilled and discussions about its remit that never happened and a growing realisation that Brexit would prevent any meaningful work on domestic policy issues.

Add the departure of Nick Timothy from Downing Street after the election and the last straw may have been a Budget in which what was delivered was in inverse proportion to what was promised in advance. As Milburn puts it:

‘The worst position in politics is to set out a proposition that you’re going to heal social divisions and then do nothing about it. It’s almost better never to say that you’ll do anything about it.’

In one sense we have been here before. This is reminiscent of what happened under the last Labour government to the Social Exclusion Unit. Once Tony Blair had resigned as prime minister, it found itself sidelined and without a champion at the top of government.

Ironically, it was child poverty that moved to the centre of the government’s agenda under Gordon Brown, with legislation setting legally binding targets for eliminating it by 2020 (both the Child Poverty Act and the targets were abolished in 2016).

However, all those ‘social’ ambitions have proved to be slippery ideas: the ‘social exclusion’ agenda morphed into ‘troubled families’ under the coalition; ‘social justice’ became about the moral agenda of a think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith; and ‘social mobility’ was an appealing slogan without much substance to back it up.

On that third point, ‘meritocracy’ began life in a satirical novel by Michael Young before it became the ambition of politicians. Apart from anything else, the ability of those at the bottom people to be upwardly mobile relied on some of those at the top moving in the opposite direction.

An interesting programme by Michael Merrick on Radio 4 last week made a more fundamental criticism of a ‘social mobility’ that requires someone from a working class, council estate background to renounce it and become middle class.

For all that, the Social Mobility Commission has done some good work, especially when it had child poverty in its title too.

Here was an organisation with official standing at the heart of government warning in 2014 that Britain was on the way to becoming ‘a permanently divided nation’ and in 2017 about the problems inherent in the Bank of Mum and Dad.

The housing system was at the heart of much of its diagnosis about what has gone wrong: home ownership becoming increasingly dependent on family wealth; insecure housing undermining children’s education; and the impact on families with children of the shift into insecure and expensive private renting.

Its fifth ‘state of the nation’ report published last week concluded that:

‘There is a fracture line running deep through our labour and housing markets and our education system. Those on the wrong side of this divide are losing out and falling behind.’

The analysis concentrates on owner-occupation as ‘one of the foundations for higher levels of social mobility’ and two of the 16 indicators in its social mobility index are housing-related: affordability of average house prices in relation to median annual salaries; and the percentage of families with children who own their home.

These could be criticised for ignoring renters, and in particular the differences in security and affordability between the social and private rented sectors, but they also reflect the government’s own priorities.

However, the report does also highlight progress on the ground such as Hackney’s 10-year plan to boost child outcomes on the Pembury Estate and Plymouth’s strategic framework for affordable homes including its partnership with Rentplus.

The central theme of the report is the gap between ‘hot spots’ with high levels of social mobility and ‘cold spots’ where people get left behind.

What’s striking is that the best performing areas are all in London – Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Hackney – as a result of its global economic strength and excellent schools.

However, local affluence does not always correlate with higher social mobility: a rich area like West Berkshire delivered worse social outcomes for its disadvantaged children than much poorer Sunderland.

Even in London, though, high housing costs are a barrier to progress: only 18% of families own their home in Tower Hamlets; and (not mentioned in the report) benefit cuts are forcing poorer families out of the capital and into less mobile areas.

After seven and a half years, the Social Mobility Commission may have run its course as a government organisation, though Alan Milburn hopes to continue some of its work and the publicity about his resignation may prompt Downing Street to keep it going.

After a Budget that promised so much on housing and failed to deliver, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of ‘a country that works for everyone’ is yawning wider than ever.

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2 Comments on “Farewell social mobility”

  1. johnpopham says:

    The thing that this country has still not come to terms with is that the large-scale loss of manufacturing industries means that it has become much harder to earn a comfortable living doing manual work. Industries such as mining and steel used to pay high wages and people could therefore could afford to live relatively well while not leaving their communities behind. These kinds of jobs are few in number now, and therefore, in order to earn a decent living, people need to go into higher education, or acquire a niche skill for which there is usually a lot of competition.

    Our education system is still not fully geared up for this massive change, and society still harks back to an idealised past when everything was different.

    • julesbirch says:

      Think you’re right that the housing market and labour market are no longer in sync. After WW2 there was a choice of secure council housing or home ownership and insecure private renting shrank – and at the same time there was an expansion of secure, well-paid jobs. Now the growth is all in insecure, poorly paid jobs and self employment and in insecure private renting


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