Kieron Williams: Government must trust councils to get London working

Kieron Williams: Government must trust councils to get London working

From the renewed tide of commuters flowing across London Bridge to the queues outside West End theatres, you don’t have to look far to see our capital’s economy has bounced back post-pandemic.  However, look beyond those crowded streets and the gaps in that recovery are all too easy to find.

London’s unemployment rate is now the highest of any part of the country and set to increase again. One in five Londoners of working age are economically inactive, representing a rise of over 100,000 in two years. Our city has the highest levels of in-work poverty of any region in the country. On top of all that, London businesses are facing skills shortages that are holding back growth, with half having vacancies they are struggling to fill.

The challenges we face stretch back much further than the pandemic. For over a decade we’ve seen living standards and productivity flat line and poverty rise. Now the spiralling cost of living has turned national malaise into crisis.

We need to set a new course. That is not something that can be achieved by imposing one size fits all answers across the whole country. London’s economy is not the same as Manchester’s or Cornwall’s. Yet our national approach to employment and growth, as to so much else, remains highly centralised. We need to be honest – it’s not working.

There is no better example of this than employment support. We are stuck in a cycle of programmes designed in Whitehall and delivered by Jobcentre Plus or by large private providers, often across huge geographies, which struggle to adapt to the distinctive needs of local communities and businesses.

These programmes are almost entirely focused on the narrow goal of reducing welfare spending. As a result, all too often the jobs people are supported into are low paid and insecure, shunting them from out of work poverty into in-work poverty. For many there is no support at all, as eligibility is restricted to those in receipt of certain benefits. It is a system that fails to help people achieve their potential or to develop the skilled workforce we need to raise our national productivity and growth.

Employment support should be about so much more. We should think about it as we do education or health provision – services provided for all to help everyone succeed in life.

Local councils are best placed lead this work. We have strong relationships with our residents and businesses, enabling us to understand local needs and opportunities. For many in our communities the barriers to work are far more complex than just finding an available job and knowing how to apply for it.  Ill health, homelessness and family caring responsibilities create barriers the Job Centre cannot begin to help people overcome. Locally we can bring services together to support people in the round.

This is no pipe dream, but work councils are already doing. Despite the enormous cuts in our budgets, London boroughs spend £35 million a year providing employment support for 44,000 residents. In my own borough, Southwark, the Southwark Works service has helped thousands of local people into jobs, apprenticeships and careers, operating hand-in-hand with employers, schools, charities, GPs and skills providers, including our construction skills centre, green skills hub and the Passmore Centre for business training.

Yet instead of backing this type of approach by communities and councils the government keeps going down its same failed path. There has been some progress toward devolution in recent years. The work and health programme was devolved to local government in London and Greater Manchester, and in central London it has supported over 9,000 residents into work, with a focus on jobs paying at least the London Living Wage. The adult education budget was recently devolved to the Mayor of London and is now reaching more leaners than before, with London outstripping any other part of the country. Devolution works.

Next year, the government’s two main employment support programmes will come to an end. This represents an opportunity to go further. The government should seize it. And employment support is just one example. Compared to almost every other country, Britain is top heavy and over-centralised. We could achieve so much more if we gave power back to our cities, councils and communities to deliver skills, growth, housing, transport, the climate emergency and more.

National government should learn to let go. We need to see a radical devolution of power and funding to local communities, so we can get on and do the thing we are determined to do – ensure our places and our residents succeed.

Kieron Williams is Leader of Southwark Council, and Chair of Central London Forward, a partnership of the 12 central London local authorities. Follow Kieron on Twitter. Photograph from Southwark Works Twitter feed.

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