Workshop on Austerity and Local Economic Development in England: Mapping a Research Agenda

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) at De Montfort University (Leicester)  is holding a two day workshop on May 16th and 17th 2016 that will bring together leading academics to discuss the future research agenda around local economic development and skills in England.

One of the main pledges of the Coalition Government and its Conservative successor has been to ‘empower’ local communities to develop bespoke initiatives that can drive local economic growth, expand employment opportunities and help address sector and regional imbalances within the UK economy. As part of this ‘new localism’, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have been established which bring together local authorities and business leaders to take forward this agenda. Government policy has also placed ‘cities’ and ‘city-regions’ at the core of its approach, brokering a number of ‘City-Deals’. These policy initiatives come at a time of austerity, with substantial cuts to public spending and local authority budgets.

From the outset, LEPs courted controversy, with many commentators highlighting problems of ‘inadequate resources’, ‘uncertain accountability’ and ‘varying capacity’. Since then resources have been stepped up and the dust has now settled sufficiently to permit a fuller assessment. One issue concerns how LEPs might link skills with economic development. For many years, government policy in England has emphasised skills as being central to economic competitiveness, productivity growth and social inclusion. Some commentators, however, argue that narrowly formulated policy interventions aimed at boosting skills supply often fail to address problems of weak employer demand for, and usage of, skills. Indeed, evidence indicates that the UK has serious problems with ‘over-qualification’ and the under-utilisation of skills, which often have a spatial dimension. Skills policies are likely to work better where they are joined up, and integrated within, a wider suite of policies around economic development, business improvement and innovation that impact on employer demand for skill.

If an integrated approach to skills is to emerge locally, then LEPs are a key mechanism. Much is likely to depend on their ability to engage local businesses and mobilise employer action around skills, an area that has proven to be challenging in the past, as well as build constructive partnerships with education and training providers. The hope might be that this approach would not only allow skills provision to be better tailored to local economic needs but would also be able to raise employer ambition around skills by effecting change in competitive strategies and approaches to work organisation, job design and people management. With all actors – LEPs, councils, employers, education and training providers and individuals – facing austerity, there are many challenges as well as questions. Will local actors be given the resources, freedoms and flexibility to deliver on this agenda? Will employers buy into this? Will policy commitments to ‘localism’ and ‘decentralisation’ be hamstrung by cultures of centralisation within Whitehall departments? Is power really being devolved or just responsibility for cuts? Will local actors find spaces for new, innovative and creative approaches that can be extended and built upon? How all of this will play out remains unclear. What is certain, however, is that there is an exciting and important research agenda here for workshop participants to engage with.

Speakers: David Bailey (Aston University), David Beale (Sheffield University), Gill Bentley (University of Birmingham), Crispian Fuller (Cardiff University), John Harrison, (Loughborough University), Martin Jones (Sheffield University), Ewart Keep (Oxford University), Andy Pike (Newcastle University), John Shutt (Leeds Beckett University), John Tomaney (University College London), Chris Warhurst (Warwick University)

If you are interested in attending please send an email to Suzanne Walker (swalker@dmu.ac.uk) to register your place.

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