Facing the future with courage and determination

By Heather Jameson | 27 July 2015

As local government heads towards devolution, The MJ/Serco gathered some top chief executives to ask how employment, skills and economic growth would be boosted in the new era. Heather Jameson reports

‘We live in pretty challenging times. We’ve got a chunky set of work programmes, and central government is thinking strongly about what needs to be pushed out to local government.’ 

This is the opening gambit of The MJ/Serco round table which took a look at the next five years for the sector.

 As our debaters gather round the table, they are yet to hear the outcome of the chancellor’s summer Budget, or the first hints of the cuts to come under the next Comprehensive Spending Review. But even so, there are hints of what is to come. 

The key concern around the table has ceased to be all about the money. The lack of cash is a major concern, but worrying about it isn’t going to solve the problems. Instead, our debaters are more preoccupied by the solutions. 

They are focused on the building of partnerships, building the local economy, promoting skills and employment and tackling the welfare system. 

There are the issues surrounding devolution – and local government is readying itself to take some of the big issues facing the country out of the hands of central government. 

We are asked where the commissioning of employment and skills sits best – is it a central or a local issue? In truth, it is about who can provide the best service, and for those around the table, there are many stories of local government doing just that. 

One chief responded: ‘It should be delegated down, but are we going to get a two-tier system, those who have devolved services and those who don’t would lose out. What happens if we are on the margins?’ 

There is a ‘strong recognition’ within the Department of Work and Pensions, we hear, that devolution of employment and skills is the right thing to do, ‘but there is a question about why we are not devolving to all’.

As one debater noted, it is early days into the new Conservative Government, and just three months ago there would have been ‘quite long odds’ on Lord Freud and Iain Duncan Smith still being in their jobs after the election. So it has come as a surprise that the agenda is still on the same track. 

‘I’d like to see a true partnership, not just payment for results to meet targets,’ one of our council chiefs claimed, with a better commissioning agenda and regional or sub-regional working. 

Another pointed out that decentralisation may be more than just the Government giving local authorities the best deal: ‘I think we are going to see an increasingly high correlation between the issues up for devolution and the issues that the Government wants to cut.’

He pointed out that ‘Whitehalll hasn’t got the greatest track record of delivering cuts’ but local government has increasingly become more efficient over the past few years. The temptation for central government must be to take advantage of that and wash its hands of the ‘hard-to-do’ cuts. 

But not everyone is so sanguine about taking on the responsibilities without the financial support. ‘This is where we need to get smarter as a local government sector. It’s just another cost shunt for us. We need, as a local government family, to say “hang on a minute”.’

We heard of one authority which has pushed hard to improve learning disability employment. The chief executive explained: ‘The hardest job to fill is the first one – then you have a champion.’ As with most projects, once the ball is rolling, things get easier. He added: ‘[Disability employment] has to be in the devolution bill.’

Another chief executive explains their authority has worked hard to carry out the recruitment process for a large employer opening for business in the area, to help get people into the jobs. 

‘The thing that is concerning us further is upskilling. We are also scratching our heads about older people, those who are retired or redundant.’

One of our debaters suggested employment and skills need to be ‘a pre-requisite of a devolution deal’. It is, he explained, about the ‘human capital’. In his area, there is a ‘skills mismatch’. 

There are a lot of employers with demand to get people into jobs, but few people with the skills required. 

The current training and skills systems are just not working. ‘The type of jobs have changed.’

Our guests also felt that the education system was letting down both those they are training and the employers in the area. ‘Colleges are just taking the money and not looking at the need.’ 

However, it is not all bad. One chief executive is optimistic on joint working: ‘Our district is coming together to melt the borders. We have got relationships. We go where we think we are going to get the best deal.’ 

It is an area which is looking at creating a possible welfare zone, but there is a lot of duplication in the work that is being done. 

The council boss added that local people are also keen to help each other back into work and that there is an ‘unusually high resident understanding of the changes to welfare cuts’. 

We heard of another area which is struggling with educational attainment, employment for young people and an ageing population. 

‘We have young people who could have a career in caring if it was marketed differently,’ we are told.

In the capital, there has been a different picture, with alliances building up around west and central London. In the east, the Olympics and Westfield pushed economic growth and created jobs for local people. 

Since the round table took place, London has revealed its devolution offer with skills and employment as its key. 

But the two issues don’t always sit side-by-side. As one debater noted: ‘Skills and employment are linked for us, but not for central government.’ 

The silo-based nature of Whitehall keeps the two apart, while devolving employment and skills to a local level would ensure they are viewed as a single issue, bridging the gap between them. 

It is not all about the positives of devolving the skills agenda – there were fears around the table about the future of welfare reform as well as skills.

‘Our county is beginning to discuss devolution. 

‘We are a council which has an ethos of partnership working. We have a great relationship with our local enterprise partnership – and we are putting a lot of effort into our infrastructure,’ one chief explained. 

Theirs is an authority which has worked hard on developments, fast-tracking through the planning process to get projects under way. 

‘We are using planning as a catalyst for growing employment,’ he suggested.  That included asking for apprenticeships as part of the development deal, ‘being entrepreneurial’ and using the strategic plan for employment.

As local authorities grasp the agenda to boost economic growth, increase employment and cut welfare, there is an increasing recognition that the Government may hand over the powers, but will want to see big cash returns. 

In addition, there is an understanding that devolution will be piecemeal, with a two-speed system that will see some authorities move far further ahead than others. 

‘Then a minister gets up in Parliament and describes it as a postcode lottery...’

The MJ/Serco debating panel:

Lynn Aisbett, chief executive, Melton BC

Nicola Bulbeck, chief executive, Teignbridge DC 

Peter Bungard, chief executive, Gloucestershire CC

Dr Donald Graham, chief executive, Hertsmere BC

Aaron Henricksen, business director, Serco  

Dr Jo Ingold, lecturer in human resource management and public policy WERD divisional director for research degrees, Leeds University Business School

Gareth Moss, strategic partnership director, Serco

John O’Brien, chief executive, London Councils

Sheila Oxtoby, chief executive, North Norfolk DC

Jenny Rowlands, chief executive, Lewes DC

Philip Simpkins, chief executive, Bedford BC

Martin Swales, chief executive, South Tyneside MBC

Michael Burton, editorial director, The MJ

Heather Jameson, editor The MJ and rapporteur

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