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Ed Cox: We need place-based solutions to skills gaps

Ed Cox
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Despite all the promises that ‘place’ would sit at the heart of the industrial strategy, in fact it’s tucked away at the end.

In the strategy document, the section on place starts on page 212. This wouldn’t matter so much if the sense of place had been woven in from start to finish. It wasn’t. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that the UK was a totally level playing field as the strategy makes almost no reference at all to the stark regional disparities that set our country apart from almost any other in the developed world.

This is a backward step. In recent years, business secretary Greg Clark has done well to impress upon his fellow ministers and officials the importance of big cities and the bespoke approaches necessary to drive a new era of devolution. But with devolution now in the doldrums and Brexit to the fore, it seems the appetite for a place-based approach has been relegated to asking local enterprise partnerships to rename their strategic economic plans as ‘local industrial strategies’ and keep chucking them small prizes like the transforming cities fund.

This is no sensible way to do the industrial strategy; the economic landscape of the nation is just too diverse. Let’s take skills as an example. In a recent Institute for Public Policy North report, we showed that the north of England has a different distribution of qualifications and adult skills from that of the UK as a whole. Across the north 9.2% of working age adults have no qualifications, compared to 7.8% across England, and only 32.7% of adults in the north are qualified to NVQ level 4 or above, compared to 37.9% across England.

But even within the north there are large variations in qualification levels between LEP areas. For example, in Cheshire and Warrington 7.5% of working age adults have no GCSE or degree qualifications, compared to 12.4% in Liverpool City Region. Skills shortages and skills gaps are distributed very differently in different parts of the north as sector specialisms vary from place to place.

Rather than large-scale national programmes to implement T-levels, boost maths or transform digital skills, the government should be just as concerned with devolving significant aspects of the skills system. The limited skills devolution that there has been has been the adult education budget, the majority of which must be spent on nationally defined legal entitlements, and the adult skills budget will have declined by around half between 2010-11 and 2020-21.

LEPs, metro-mayors, combined authorities and county councils all stand ready to take up the productivity challenges facing the nation, but until the power of place is put at the real heart of industrial strategy, a spatially blind approach will leave most of us wandering around in the dark.

Ed Cox, director, IPPR North


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