Workshop: Local Economic Development and Skills Under Austerity

In this post, Jonathan Payne reports back on a two day workshop on local economic development (LED) and skills policy under austerity held by the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) in May.

The workshop brought together leading UK academics in the areas of LED, governance and skills to debate the changing institutional landscape around LED in England and the opportunities and constraints afforded by policy commitments to ‘localism’. This afforded a rare opportunity for academics interested in economic geography, local governance and skills to come together and discuss how the ‘localisation’ agenda is playing out in practice.

As Ewart Keep argued, for the last thirty years skills policy in England has tended to be a national project, focused on generalised workforce upskilling in pursuit of government targets. With government now promising to devolve more of the adult skills budget to local areas, there are questions around how much autonomy local areas will have and what level of resource they might draw on. Furthermore, past experience would suggest that a narrow focus upon education and training, or boosting the supply of skills, runs up against problems of weak employer demand for skill, linked to the way many firms in the UK compete, design jobs and manage staff. This is reflected in a high proportion of low skill, low wage jobs compared with many other advanced European countries, relatively low productivity, and problems of ‘over-qualification’ and ‘under-utilisation of skills’ within the workplace. As the UK Commission for Employment and Skills has argued, there are limits to what boosting skills supply can achieve on its own without wider measures to influence the ‘demand side’. The latter requires effective measures such as industrial policy, economic development and business improvement to grow the proportion of high skill jobs and upgrade the skill content of work more generally. Skills policy might work better if integrated and joined up with such activity.

The role of local enterprise partnerships, city-deals and combined authorities is clearly of relevance here for a number of reasons. First, government is promising to ‘empower’ local communities through these mechanisms to drive LED. Second, skills policy is being localised and skills often figure prominently within this agenda. These claims are controversial, particularly in terms of how ‘real’ localism is at time of funding cuts. However, localism is also a moving picture, and if skills and economic development are to be integrated as part of a more holistic approach, then this is one of the few areas where we might look for examples of progress (or not).

Many issues came to the fore during these discussions: the tendency for LED governance to bounce back and forth between different scales and for policy to ‘keep failing forwards’; the uneven capacity of LEPs; the role of power in devolving ‘risk’; the need to understand how local actors comprehend their situation and what motivates their engagement; the tendency for policy to eschew interventions inside the ‘black box’ of the firm; and the question of what ‘localism’ can tell us about the ‘neo-liberal state’ in a period of crisis management and the narratives it constructs. What is clear, however, is that research will be better placed to address such issues where academics work across disciplinary boundaries. LED, governance and skills are an example of one such interface where collaboration is likely to prove particularly fruitful.

Jonathan Payne is Reader in Employment Studies at De Montfort University and a member of CURA (Centre for Urban Research on Austerity) as well as CROWE (Contemporary Research on Organisations, Work and Employment

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