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Georgia Gould: London councils must build inclusive economies

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It’s easy to think that unemployment in the UK no longer poses a major policy challenge. After all, employment is at its highest rate for decades, with more people in work than ever before.

But these figures disguise serious, ongoing problems.

In London, where economic growth remains relatively robust, there are significant failings in the labour market affecting huge numbers of Londoners.

Half a million people in London don’t have a job even though they want one. That’s 251,800 Londoners unemployed and actively looking for work, and a further 290,400 who are economically inactive and not seeking work, but want it.

This is unacceptable.

Even for those in employment, there remain immense economic and social justice challenges. In-work poverty, the precariousness of so many jobs and underemployment are growing concerns. 58% of Londoners experiencing poverty live in a working household. That is a 50% increase over the last decade.

A changing economy fuelled by factors like increased globalisation, technology innovation and the consequences of Brexit could further entrench existing disadvantages. We need to understand, anticipate and build on these changes to create an economy where a good job at a fair wage is accessible for everyone.

Reforming employment support is a key part of this. Jobcentre Plus has proven successful at helping people who have recently become unemployed, but it struggles to tackle entrenched labour market issues and support those with complex barriers to work.

We need to bring services closer to the people who use them. Many people out of work will already be heavy users of local authority services, often accessing multiple forms of support. Future employment support programmes must make more of local government’s unique position and the opportunities that it can offer.

London Councils’ new report – Better Ways to Work: Tackling Labour Market Disadvantage in London – advocates a ‘local first’ approach. Our recommendations would refocus London’s employment support on those who need it most and ensure that services reflect the needs of local communities.

Through co-locating jobcentres with borough services, giving us more control over employment support resources, and empowering us to take firm action against employers failing to pay the minimum wage, local government could lead the way in tackling labour market failings and building a more inclusive economy.

This also means improving help for those in work but struggling with poor health – particularly mental illness. A rising number of people describe poor mental health as their main barrier to work, but there hasn’t been a similar shift in government provision of targeted support.

We believe a healthy working innovation fund, led by local authorities alongside the Department for Work & Pensions, the NHS and others, should be set up to build effective new interventions, including advice helplines and integrated employment and occupational health support.

London boroughs must be properly empowered to ensure no Londoner is left behind by our evolving economy. While our report focuses on the capital, we believe these recommendations should be rolled out across England and Wales. The labour market is changing, and it’s time that employment services do the same.

Georgia Gould (Lab), executive member for skills and employment, London Councils; and leader, Camden LBC

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