A recent report by Plan International U.K. confirmed that where you live matters for your outcomes, especially for women and girls. Reviewing evidence across England and Wales across a range of measures, including poverty, teenage conception rates, life expectancy and education and skills, the report found that Middlesbrough is the worst area to be a girl in England and Wales and Waverley in Surrey is the best.
Devolution can be part of the answer, particularly when focused on skills and employment, enabling local areas to use their knowledge of local labour markets to commission adult education. When combined with other devolution measures including influence over careers advice and guidance, devolution can allow areas to tackle particular issues that women and girls in their area face and target advice, encouraging – for example – more women and girls into STEM subjects from an early age.
However, simply devolving power on adult education budgets or having influence over careers advice will not by themselves improve women and girls’ outcomes or those of other individuals with protected characteristics. Differences in outcomes for these groups are prolific, long-standing and embedded from an early age. As the Fawcett Society’s new Commission ‘Local and Equal’ stated on its launch, while women make up a significant number of local government employment, women are only 33 percent of local councillors, 13 percent of elected mayors and 13 percent of council leaders. Without greater numbers of women in senior positions in local areas, there are questions as to whether devolution will adequately represent all those in the population the powers will be devolved to.
One thing is for certain, however, the current centralised system does not work. Local disparities always win the way, creating great variations in outcomes from blanket policy responses. Greater local devolution and influence can change this, creating an opportunity to focus on specific local issues, including for women and girls – as the recent Inclusive Growth Commisison evidence session in Nottingham showed: “it’s like we’ve stopped talking about gender in Nottingham…apprenticeships aren’t targeted at women, so they aren’t getting the support about what career options could be available to them…child friendly employment opportunities in Nottingham are also poor, so in many instances women find themselves leaving school and either having a baby or falling into low paid caring roles.”
A key solution therefore – and one in which I’d encourage the Inclusive Growth Commission to consider - is about extending the reach of local influence beyond the adult education space, combined with a focus on inclusivity of gender and other protected characteristics, to allow local areas to look at the full life-cycle of individuals in their area. This can allow areas to prioritise innovative interventions, such as prenatal support for pregnant women, and help break the life cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Julia Wilcox previously worked on the City Growth Commission and is now a Senior Policy Advisor in the Cities and Local Growth Unit leading on skills devolution. Her views on feminism, gender equality and devolution are all her own