When the prime minister used one of his first speeches to talk about ‘levelling up’ England’s left-behind regions, he could quite well have been referring to the lack of opportunities available to young adults in deprived coastal or rural communities, with no clear career pathway after leaving secondary school.
Many of these areas were pinpointed in last year’s social mobility report from the County All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). The key conclusion from the report was that there exists a misconception that county areas are all affluent. This masks socio-economic challenges, with eight of the 10 least-socially mobile areas in England being located in counties, rather than in metropolitan areas.
Many of the county councils that provided evidence to the APPG identified a lack of post-16 options in their areas, with fewer opportunities to attend sixth forms or colleges offering the right courses, and fewer opportunities to improve their skills or access training.
In remote rural areas, disadvantaged young people are half as likely to gain two or more A-levels compared to those in major cities. This lack of opportunity means that many leave their local areas to go to university and stay away, leading to a ‘brain drain’ from counties.
At the same time, as a result of fewer further education opportunities, those remaining at home often have no choice but to enter low-wage, low-skilled local economies.
This situation is highly unsatisfactory not only from an individual’s own circumstances, but for the local economy. A report from Oxford Economics for the County Councils Network (CCN) found that county areas’ traditional manufacturing base will continue to erode over the next decade, with those places needing to attract more jobs in communications, information, finance and insurance – high-productivity sectors. However, unless we address the dearth in skills in some county areas, there is a risk our residents will lack the skills to do these jobs.
That’s not to say that county areas are not doing their best to try to improve life chances for our young people and to train the workers of tomorrow, but local authorities remain shackled by a lack of resources and powers to make a real difference.
CCN analysis shows that counties are among the least-funded local authority areas in the country; receiving £240 per person for public services, 60% less than councils in inner London (£601 per head), and 46% less than metropolitan boroughs (£419 per head). With the majority of county councils’ budgets being spent on addressing huge demand pressures in care services, our areas lack the means to invest in infrastructure and skills to attract further education colleges and tailored courses.
The Government’s Fair Funding Review provides the means to address the unfair nature of council funding. It was due to be rolled out next April but has been delayed owing to extenuating political circumstances. I will be working with ministers to ensure it is implemented in 2021 and genuinely seeks to rebalance the system.
Counties are constrained by what they can do to attract inward investment and to address skills shortages compared to urban metro mayors who have had skills devolved to them. Counties should be given the same powers. The prime minister has signalled his intent to reboot the devolution agenda, but the forthcoming white paper must set out more flexible means so that county councils can create specific solutions for their own areas, working alongside business and district councils.
They know their economies best – and by using their expertise to bring together education providers and business, they can make a difference if they are empowered to do so.