Meet the Gorgons


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Meet the Gorgons. With snakes for hair and faces that would turn people to stone, you wouldn't want to stumble across them while casually going about your daily business.

I was asked to share some thoughts on the subject, 'Can Localism Deliver?'. In just ten minutes, all you can do is raise a few questions that might help you towards an answer.

The first questions, of course, are what is localism and what is it intended to deliver? Assuming we stick with the consensus that it's about bringing decision-making closer to the people, the deliverable must be a more involved and engaged population: people who have more civic pride and play a greater part in running local institutions or networks.

This point of this presentation is to raise three issues that, unless we find ways of dealing with them, will combine to petrify localism, turning the best ideas to stone. All three concern the dynamics of neighbourhoods and the toll they exact on people's time, aspirations and capacity to engage with local decision-making.

Each issue drains the energy from individuals, families and communities - especially from economically active families with school-age children. And the three are interrelated, which is why it's so hard to deal with them - particularly for national government, which has different departments to deal with each issue.

But the Gorgons are siblings, spawn of the same unfortunate union. The three Gorgons facing localism are employment, housing and education markets and the way they interact. At the root is the very understandable human aspiration to want the best for yourself and your children. For the earner in a family, it presents itself in the familiar dilemma: can I get a better job so I can live in a nicer area so my kids can go to a better school? But the aspiration for our children's future is beggaring our children's future and undermining social ties.

The first of these mutually supportive Gorgons is education. Catchment-area based schooling generally favours better-off neighbourhoods, and sets in train a dynamic that raises the value of property in neighbourhoods with good schools. Good schools put a premium on house prices; so over a period of years, areas with better schools become less and less affordable to those on low incomes. Add in the fact that those who choose private education tend to live in the wealthiest neighbourhoods and you have a system that polarises any large town or city. What price localism when different neighbourhoods have competing agendas?

This wouldn't be such a problem if it wasn't for our second Gorgon, the housing market. With two-thirds of the UK's housing owner-occupied, ownership is the only guarantee of moving into the catchment area for a high-performing school. Meanwhile the concentration of social housing in particular areas, and allocation policies that turn it into a dumping ground for people with the most severe problems, militate against the performance of schools in low-income areas, reinforcing the divides. Over two or three generations the cycle becomes more and more difficult to break, as first-time buyers rely on parental equity to get them started on the housing 'ladder' - and those without miss out.

Finally, we have the third Gorgon - the labour market. This is a particularly difficult one to crack, and is influenced by a wide range of factors. The ones I want to highlight here are first, that wage needs are driven by housing and education costs as well as the value of the job; second, that the much-vaunted mobility and flexibility of our workforce pull against developing community roots and social ties, thus creating a greater dependence on state-provided or bought-in services; and third, that the demand for ever-higher qualifications for professional, technical or managerial roles further squeeze earners' time, earning capacity and ability to get involved in community life.

These are fiendishly difficult issues to unravel. But we're not stuck with doing th

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  • Meet the Gorgons

    1. 1. Localism: meet the Gorgons or: three ways to defeat the best intentions
    2. 2. Once upon a time...
    3. 3. ‘...a new Britain where there is genuine devolution of power, not centralisation, and respect for localism and self governing communities’ Gordon Brown, NCVO conference, 9 February 2000
    4. 4. ‘We are convinced that effective local and regional institutions and dynamic communities hold the key to unlocking a series of intractable problems confronting our society’ New Localism: refashioning the centre-local relationship, New Local Government Network, 2002
    5. 5. ‘The Government’s proposed new funding framework for local authorities in England represents an important part of the overall agenda to decentralise decision making’ A Modern Regional Policy for the United Kingdom, DTI, 2003
    6. 6. Three structural problems that may defeat localism
    7. 7. The first Gorgon: education
    8. 8. A 10% increase in the pass rate in Standard Assessment Tests at the nearest school adds on average 3.3% to the price of a typical house Nationwide survey, 24 November 2009
    9. 9. • Private education drives migration to wealthier neighbourhoods • A premium on high performing state schools drives migration to wealthier neighbourhoods • Poor school performance drives migration out of poorer neighbourhoods
    10. 10. The second Gorgon: housing
    11. 11. In 1984 the average first-time buyer’s mortgage was worth 1.99 times their income. In 2004 the multiple was 3.03 times their income. National Housing and Planning Advice Unit, 2009
    12. 12. • Jockeying for educational advantage prices low-income people out • Housing as the signifier of personal wealth undermines affordability and access • ‘Like it or lump it’ social housing allocations undermine neighbourliness and attachment
    13. 13. The third Gorgon: employment
    14. 14. There has been unprecedented growth in the number of people with qualifications in the last decade... but the number ‘not fully proficient’ at their jobs rose from 1.3m in 2005 to 1.7m in 2009 UK Commission on Employment and Skills, March 2010
    15. 15. • The paper chase: do you need a degree for every job? • The rat race: I must earn more to live somewhere nicer to give my kids a better education • The super-mobile workforce: why invest in your community when your job might move next year?
    16. 16. No localism without localisation?
    17. 17. More from me at: • New Start magazine: • •