I think it’s generally recognised that the biggest social and economic divide in the country is not between North and South but between London and The Rest of the Country. Alex Swallow’s latest blog for Third Sector has finally prompted me to set down some of my thinking on this and how it affects our sector. http://alexswallow.thirdsector.co.uk/2013/12/10/decentralising-power-and-distributing-ideas/
Alex makes the point that too much of our sector is focused on London. Of course, it's true of our entire culture not just our sector. I recently heard Bruce Katz describe the economic destiny of a nation as determined by the shared interests of cities working collaboratively. Despite having just 12% of the country’s population, London is like some vainglorious footballer: a striker who clearly thinks he’s simply better and more important than the rest of the team. To see how this attitude translates into the real world, you’ve only to look IPPR North’s report on transport expenditure: spend per head is £2,595 in London but just £5 per head in the North East.(1) It permeates our national leadership, over-informed by a Westminster Village view of what’s important to the country.(2)
Alex is also right to point out that it’s bizarre that it somehow feels appropriate to be extra-grateful (and mildly surprised) that people based in London should come to meetings or events taking place in The Rest of the Country. I witnessed it at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society in Manchester only a few weeks ago. We were all terribly grateful that this was the first ever to be held outside London …even though only one member of the group attended (a member of the Lords – no MPs).
I’m not entirely sure Alex is right that it’s "our sector" which is London-centric. How many of the 160,000 charities in England and Wales are based and/or working in London? Not the majority, by any means. However, look not at numbers of charities but the size of those charities. How much of the sector’s money is based in London? Almost overwhelmingly the majority. But that’s old news: we’ve all known for a long time that the general picture is roughly 90% of the sector’s resources are held by 10% of the organisations. That’s not the point here.
The real issue is that the sector's most visible / vocal leaders are (with notable exceptions like NAVCA and figures such as Richard Caulfield) based in London. This is why what emerges from them often seems to be borne of a different world from the one my local sector colleagues inhabit.(3) The current debate about Charity Chief Execs’ pay is a case in point. I don’t mean that those involved don’t know that there is a world outside London but the debate shows worrying signs that they don’t realise quite how far away they are: the conversation seems to oscillate between the point a) there are large charities who need to attract top talent with competitive salaries and point b) 75% of charities have an income under £100K. The average charity manager salary across Greater Manchester is about £35k.
Perhaps what we need to examine is the argument that major charities and our infrastructure agencies need to be based in London because that’s where the big political and business connections are.(4) While it is true, it means our sector’s leaders are rather reinforcing that where they perhaps ought to be challenging it. From what I’ve seen at conferences it leads to a form of groupthink: so many large national charities all concentrated in London, all faced with the issue of being larger organisations which look and sound less like the people they serve. I want to be clear that I do not for one moment accuse them of not doing good work and creating benefit, I’m just highlighting that there is a risk that this culture of large nationals based in London becomes too distant from the rest of the sector. They’re our most visible players to the public and need to be leading the way in presenting the sector at its best.
In a week which has seen a Panorama documentary showcase examples of situations where the actions of a charity become disconnected from its values and aims, I wonder how many of these charities have done a real analysis of whether they really need to be based in central London. Given the costs of property and the need to increase staff wages to cover London costs, is it justified by the influence gained? I wonder how many charities have moved to a model of a smaller office in London with a head office elsewhere?
One can also reflect on how Government has moved in the opposite direction: closure of regional offices has meant a very London-centric culture and diminished not just the voice but the hands-on reality of other regions as an influence on policy.
Even writing this I’m still talking in terms of London / Not-London when I’m trying to move beyond that dynamic. It’s a tough habit to break but our sector could lead the way in emphasising the benefits of other locations like exposure to different ideas, connections. Some distance from the self-referential Westminster and media spheres could be very healthy for organisations which are informed by values first and foremost. It might of course be forced on some organisations out of financial necessity, but I can’t help thinking there could be an additional benefit: our sector could show some leadership in rebalancing our economy and our society.
(2) I understand the Chancellor actually named some places in the North last week. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/george-osbornes-northern-fever-political-getaways-the-racy-mail-and-flawed-procedures-8990735.html!
(3) And I say this fully aware that being based in the city centre of Manchester I’m in a different world from life in Irlam, Billinge and Dukinfield.
(4) Also, of course, many of our national charities were set up in London in the first place and so London feels like “home”.