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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