We need to devolve skills provision to avoid youth unemployment rising. Photo: Getty
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Government has the wrong approach to tackling the skills gap

With youth unemployment falling to 733,000, it is time for devolving skills to improve the prospects for young people and safeguard against any future rise in the figures.

Centralised power has its merits, but when it comes to skills and training, the status quo is simply not working, and a local approach is desperately needed.

ONS figures due in a couple of weeks are expected to show a slight dip in the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds, but a fundamental disconnect remains between the skills the UK is producing and the skills employers need. Take London as an example - there is no shortage of jobs, but businesses are struggling to fill one in three vacancies because of a lack of suitable candidates. The government's £4bn spend on skills provision in England is not delivering value for money, with too much spent on hair and beauty and health and safety training when the general trend is moving towards more high-skilled sectors such as digital, engineering and science.

Addressing the mismatch in the skills provision has to be a priority or the current and future generations will be unable to compete with a highly-skilled international workforce.  Skills support must follow a demand-led model and be closely aligned with the needs of the local economy.

Whitehall is not best placed to determine the skills needed in Manchester, Newcastle, London or Birmingham. It is local councils that need to take this leadership role as they have the comprehensive local knowledge and relationships with education institutions, employers and training providers in the area. Having central government hold the purse strings is not only inefficient but it is neutering our ability to tackle unemployment.

There is already extremely valuable work being done at a local level with town halls leveraging their strong community links and acting as a broker between learners and businesses. Devolving budget responsibility will enable local governments to take a more long-term view of skills needs. They can then respond effectively to the ever-changing jobs market and ensure residents have the requisite skills to get ahead.

So, how local should the approach go? There is no one size fits all solution, which highlights once again how the UK skills system is misjudged. In London for example, each borough has vastly different business characteristics and economy. Through our charity, the City Bridge Trust, we offered grants of £100,000 to each London borough to support projects run by third sector organisations to reduce youth unemployment, because we recognise the granularity of the capital's jobs market. The money is being used by local councils to fund community projects and skills providers who work with the hard to reach and understand the support and training needed to help their residents find and sustain employment.

In Waltham Forest, which borders the expansive Epping Forest open space, managed by the City of London Corporation, there are a number of opportunities in the booming horticultural industry, while the borough of Hackney is perfectly located to take advantage of jobs in the local digital sector - Silicon Roundabout. In the City, commercial developments such as One New Change have seen more demand for retail experience. This has led to us backing the Cheapside Employment Project - a free service to employers that provides customised training for local residents and matches them with vacancies in the retail, hospitality and construction sectors. Many unemployed or low-paid young people cannot afford to travel outside of their community, so it is vital that there is local training provision aimed at getting those people into jobs close-by. Looking through a national lens, these nuances are missed.

The devolving skills argument is showing no signs of abating because it makes practical sense. Youth unemployment is a complex and long-term problem but the solution is obvious. Councils already have strong community relationships and engage regularly with local businesses and colleges on a strategic level. They facilitate greater collaboration within the community; developing apprenticeships, internships and corporate volunteering partnerships that bolster economic development in the area.

By and large, councils have a good track record with aligning skills support with the needs of employers. They must be given the freedom and funding to enhance skills provision and ensure young people are fully prepared for the labour market.

Mark Boleat is the policy chairman of the City of London Corporation

Mark Boleat, Policy and Resources Chairman, City of London Corporation.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.