It is an unwanted and for some, an unexpected official accolade: the affluent towns of Amersham and Chesham in the Chilterns are among England’s very worst places for social mobility. Grow up poor here, the statistics suggest, and you have a high chance of being locked into generations of poverty and disadvantage.
Poor life chances are normally associated with deprived urban areas. But Chiltern, a desirable home counties commuter refuge, is England’s third least deprived district. It is home to wealthy entrepreneurs, city financiers and pop stars, and known for its picturesque villages and opulent mansions.
Nonetheless, this month it found itself ranked at the top of a list of social mobility “cold spots” alongside far grittier places such as Bradford, Margate, Mansfield and Wigan. They are all areas where, according to a report by the Social Mobility Commission, deep-rooted disadvantage gives low-income families little chance to improve their lives.
Conservative-controlled Buckinghamshire council, in whose boundaries Chiltern lies, said it was “flabbergasted” by the ranking. “We do not believe there is a social mobility problem on this scale here. Everyone was shocked to see us in that category [of cold spots] let alone at the top of it,” said councillor Gareth Williams, the council’s cabinet member for communities and public health.
The commission, an agency of the Department for Education, stands by its findings. The results of the most detailed study of regional social mobility it has ever undertaken concluded places such as Chiltern trapped poorer families under a “lasting shadow of deprivation”. They told a story of “deep unfairness”, determined by where people grew up.
“I’m not surprised to find Chiltern on the list”, said Graham Wakeman, the director of the Restore Hope charity in Chesham. It works with vulnerable Chiltern families and hosts weekly trips from local state schools. It runs life skills and parenting classes, adult education courses, and even fly fishing sessions for deprived youngsters. Since lockdown, it has distributed thousands of food boxes.
The charity is itself a beneficiary of the extraordinary wealth of the area. It is situated in converted farm buildings on its own stunning 350-acre country estate complete with trout lake – bought by a local philanthropist, the toyshop tycoon Gary Grant, to provide, in line with its Christian values, a tranquil haven in which to support local families in tough circumstances.
The charity – asset rich and cash poor, says Wakeman – has often struggled to get grants. He suspects philanthropic foundations look at the Chiltern postcode and assume there are more needy recipients. He understands: it doesn’t look deprived. But Covid-19 has dramatically revealed that hidden disadvantage. When lockdown came, he says, “we knew the level of need would be massive, and it was.”
Relative poverty explains much but not all of why poorer young people in places such as Chiltern are much less likely than their more affluent peers to succeed in education and more likely to go on to earn vastly less. A kind of social segregation takes place early: how much money you have, and the postcode in which you live, largely dictates the avenues you get to pass down.
“There’s no equality of opportunity: your opportunities are dictated by your financial circumstances,” says Wakeman. What too often follows is low self-confidence, a feeling that academic achievement is not for the likes of you, and a dogged, almost tribal pride in not wanting to succeed. “You can be an incredibly bright kid and you won’t get the access.”
A group of local mothers who have benefited from Restore Hope say social sifting starts with Buckinghamshire’s highly selective school system, a hyper-competitive environment where the “winners” (disproportionately wealthy) pass the 11-plus and go to grammar or private school, while the “losers” go to state comprehensives.
Ellie Owen-Smith, 29, of Amersham, said her schooling was marked by a constant feeling of being a failure. She left as soon as she could. In her mid-20s she attended classes at Restore Hope and recently passed her English GCSE with the equivalent of an A grade. Wakeman was unsurprised: her poor school record, he reckons, “was never about her intelligence”.
The mothers’ attempts to ensure their own kids succeeded hit familiar barriers: the cost of uniforms, school trips and after-school clubs, even pressure to privately tutor their children for the 11-plus race. Outside school, there are few youth clubs and most activities don’t come cheap. Trudy Pringle, 26, of Amersham, says she pays £300 a term for her daughter’s dance class. “There’s not a lot if you haven’t got money.”
The high cost of living in Chiltern devours tiny household budgets, says 28-year-old Shannon Avis, of Amersham. Rent and childcare costs are sky-high, and transport expensive (public and private). Shopping bills are painful when local outlets are dominated by upmarket brands (the closure of the local Iceland was mourned by families on tight food budgets).
There is no bitterness or self-pity among the mothers, just a weariness that trying to live a no-frills life in a place you love, where you grew up, near relatives can be such a precarious grind. “I can’t help I was born and brought up in Buckinghamshire. But I pay a lot to live here close to family. It’s crazy, it’s not fair,” says Pringle.
Pringle has her own childcare business, and is studying part time for a degree. Hard work, she said, is “good for the soul”. But she knows people who work all hours on low wages and barely keep their head above water; others give up the fight and go on to benefits. It’s baffling, she says, that billions of pounds are being spent putting a railway line (HS2) through the Chilterns when local people struggle to eat.
Buckinghamshire council disputes the commission’s data, which it says is based, in Chiltern’s case, on a tiny cohort. It did not understand why Chiltern’s ranking is so out of kilter with demographically similar neighbouring districts, or why Chiltern – in the top quintile of socially mobile council areas according to a commission report three years ago – has seemingly fallen so far from grace.
“As a council are we complacent about social mobility? Absolutely not,” said Williams, who volunteers as a counsellor with a local debt advice charity. But he is not convinced Chiltern is such an extreme outlier: “I want to get to the bottom of whether this is a genuine problem.”
The mothers have no doubt: they witness and experience inequality everyday. For many who live in Chiltern’s bubble of serene affluence, however, it can be easy not to notice. “Sometimes,” says Restore Hope’s development manager, Alison Greenhalgh, “it’s like two societies living parallel lives.”