What with all the General Election excitement the arrival of six new Metro Mayors in England may have passed you by. But listen up, they have significant powers – above and beyond a MP – and huge influence in their city-regions AND they are accountable to some 10 million people!
Our new Metro Mayors, have influence and devolved powers over the Adult Skills Budget, the Apprenticeship Grant and the post-16 further education system. Some will also be able to jointly commission employment support services.
It’s clear that they intend to make the most of these new powers. Andy Street in the West Midlands made tackling long-term youth unemployment and employment of disadvantaged groups central to his manifesto. Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester wants to create a ‘UCAS’ system making apprenticeships far easier to access.
This focus is welcome for areas that have long been short-changed by blunt, nationally tailored programmes. Devolution of these powers allows for the creation of better, integrated services which reflect local concerns and provides for a more holistic response to the needs of jobseekers. Unifying different funding streams can reduce costs and target support effectively.
Do not underestimate the new mayors’ ability to ‘bang heads together’. Soft powers will be just as important as hard powers. DevoConnect organised a skills roundtable for Steve Rotheram, now Mayor of Liverpool City Region, earlier this year, to bring together key organisations involved in the skills agenda: businesses, unions, colleges and universities from the region. Even though many present were competitors, the ability to work collectively and collaboratively was welcome and refreshing.
The local economies in major cities outside London have quite different needs. Devolution is about making sure employment support services reflect and are appropriate to meet local concerns. The commissioning powers over the national Work and Health Programme granted to London and Manchester, provide for specialised employment support for the disabled and long-term unemployed too.
This is not to say that the road ahead will be free of obstacles. Devolution is a journey, not a destination. Devolved employment services must still work out the best working relationship with programmes that remain national, such as JobCentre Plus. Some of the major challenges – that half of disabled people are unemployed, relatively high illiteracy, and the precarious nature of much work – will not be met by devolved budgets alone.
It’s a tough gig but metro mayors can be ambassadors for their areas, a regional political voice that amplifies and addresses local concerns. If they care about widening employment opportunities, and supporting those who are the furthest from employment, they can direct resource, time, and organisational efforts towards them. While not always headline grabbing, focused efforts can improve procurement processes by fostering co-operation, share good practice and understanding between local government and service providers and users, building stronger relationships than national policy allows for.
In the fight to address the root, local causes of unemployment, our new mayors have huge potential to be powerful allies and advocates. Don’t let them and the prospect of more devolution to come pass you by. Get on board as it’s a huge opportunity and not one to be missed.