The general feedback being given to LEPs on their draft Local Strategies is that many of these have been too similar and generic, too much ‘of a type’. To some extent this is understandable. ERDF itself is quite prescriptive in terms of what is eligible for funding, so a local strategy that, say, focused on improving bus routes would not get very far at all.
Also, the strong focus for ERDF in 2014-2020 on SMEs, low carbon, and innovation sets down some new constraints. In my view this is good, in that it challenges areas of high unemployment not just to keep running the ‘same old’ projects, sometimes even for the ‘same old’ beneficiaries.
So, it seems too many of the local strategies have started out with some local statistics but then go on to suggest generic, boilerplate solutions.
CLES have usefully analysed and commented on a range of LEP strategies, and especially on the worrying degree to which there is a lack of social inclusion so far in quite a few of the strategies. As they comment, some strategies are purely economic and take the approach that ‘a rising tide will lift all boats’. Well, we know too well that some boats all too often get left behind, stuck and forgotten.
The Leader of Manchester City Council, in his last blog before the purdah of local elections, makes the point that the persistently high levels of unemployment in disadvantaged communities still needs more effort and solutions, especially for those people who are furthest from the labour market.
And in my view this points to a weakness in a lot of local strategies. It is very easy to focus on employment sites, rather than on communities. So, for example, a new supermarket is about to open, so there is joint working to ensure that as many jobs as possible go to local residents. Which is well and good, and we all pretty much know how to do this by now. We also know in our bones that, too often, many of the new quality jobs will miss local residents completely and get taken by commuters from, bluntly, the posher areas. Is there another way?
What is so much harder to do is to start with community X. Very few strategies actually know the details of the jobs that people already have in community X. Nearly all employment analysis we do is based either on very large travel-to-work or conurbation areas or is based on the workplace itself. The best source of community-based employment data is probably held by HMRC, which at the moment is mostly forbidden by law from sharing their data – even with other departments within government. HMRC consulted last year on how they might better share data, of course with strong ethical and privacy safeguards. That consultation gave a flavour of HMRC’s deep frustration with an example where they could not share data with the health authorities in Wales even though that could have reduced the number of winter deaths of elderly people.
HMRC data will be able to say, for any postcode, ward, output area, etc, — how many people who live here are working, where, doing what, for how long, and for how much. And it will only be by digging into this type of very local community-specific data that we can start to design and support those projects, interventions, which will make a difference.
However, we cannot wait for a change in the legal powers of HMRC, so we need to devise other cost-effective ways to collect rich knowledge on employment at the community level.
I think we are in for a few surprises. I hope so. I would love to find out that, for example, in Beswick or wherever there is a strong skills set in model making and repairing. Maybe this is clustered around a club of retired steelworks engineers who, along with an interested technology teacher, have passed on the skills and contacts to a new generation, who are now using the internet and post office to supply enthusiasts overseas.
And what they don’t need most from ERDF is a job trial at the local supermarket.