To respond to Brexit, Britain's councils need more powers over skills

An apprentice metalworker and shipbuilder in Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

The recent vote to leave the European Union is going to throw up some interesting challenges for the labour market, particularly outside London. As yet, we do not know the details, but it seems certain that there will be some sort of significant upheaval for both business, and those responsible for providing skills and training for employment.

Last week, a report published by the Association for Public Service Excellence and researched by NLGN (New Local Government Network) recommended that local councils should have greater powers to help tackle unemployment and skills shortages in their area. After last few fast-moving months, this appears more crucial than ever before.

Of the councils we surveyed, 98 per cent said that they thought they were better placed to be able to provide the links between persistent unemployment and the specific problems faced by those in their authority. Of course it shouldn't be surprising that councils want to have greater devolved powers – but what is striking is that 80 per cent are already taking steps to improve the employment and skills provision in this area, despite the main responsibility sitting with central government.

This set up isn't without problems. One of the greatest challenges is the division between employment and skills at the national level. While employment sits within the Department of Work & Pensions, the Department for Education is responsible for skills. With silo-ed thinking directing funding and programmes, it’s no wonder that integration of employment and skills is a challenge on a local level.

Added to this, employment problems do not operate in a vacuum. The links between unemployment and mental health, homelessness and many other social issues are well documented – but central government cannot solve these problems collectively as it is, let alone create tailored programmes for each area.

Pilots and pathfinders

And so, as each locality responds to the changes that will likely happen to the labour market after Brexit, they need to have the powers and flexibility to create the unique and tailored programmes to tackle the unique set of problems that they face.  

Some local authorities are already starting to address the integrated approach. One of the areas we looked at in our research was Blackpool, which will shortly be implementing integrated services that will provide proper links between mental health and employment – to help those for whom depression and anxiety prevent them from holding down a job.

Our research also found that there was a strong desire from local business to help with tackling long-term unemployment – they want and need employees with the right training and skills. Over 75 per cent of councils reported support from business.

The City and County of Swansea Council is taking this a step further: many of its procurement contracts require targeted recruitment and training for young people or the long term unemployed. Using business to help tackle unemployment is a beautifully symbiotic relationship – but one that can only be driven by local councils who have extensive knowledge of the gaps between jobs available and their local workforce.

The bottom line

Of course, budget cuts are always going to come into this debate. Of respondents to our research, 84 per cent of councils said that they were prevented from providing the most effective services because of a lack of funding.

Approximately £13bn is being spent on 28 different employment and skills programmes at a national level. This is a staggering amount of money that could almost certainly be spent more effectively and be better targeted if it was handed over to councils to use in tailored programmes where it is needed most.

It’s become increasingly clear that after a turbulent few months – and more uncertainty to come – we are going to need to reassess our labour markets and the upcoming skills gap in light of it. It also now seems fairly safe to say that how people relate to central government and advice services has also shifted further than we could ever have anticipated. While there is obviously a link between the Brexit vote and the distrust of central government (we will leave it to braver experts to articulate the reasons for this), the scale of it has a potentially huge impact on the reception of employment advice and services that comes from central government.

Whatever your opinion of Brexit, we need to turn this into an opportunity to reshape how we tackle this skills gap properly, and give councils the devolved powers we are confident they deserve.

Claire Mansfield is head of research, and Claire Porter head of external affairs, at the New Local Government Network. 


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.