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Take skills to the river

Ambitious visions such as the new Thames Gateway city will mean regional learning bodies having to collaborate as never before

The march to greater regionalisation took another step forward last week.

As the "new" Learning and Skills Council began to take shape, chief executive Mark Haysom, announced a top team that will spearhead a whole new approach to regional skills policy.

In many ways, the blueprint for today's policy can be traced back nearly a decade when Bruce Milan began work as chair of the Regional Policy Commission. Set up by Labour in opposition to advise on the future governance of England's nine regions, his seminal report, Renewing the Regions, makes relevant reading even now.

In those days, the incoming government was being urged to devolve decision-making to the "lowest-effective level". Regional development agencies were set up in 1997 to identify local priorities.

The experience of the past few years has underlined the case for an even more flexible approach to regions. Indeed, the LSC's decision to appoint 10 regional directors, who retain responsibility for running a local LSC, is a prime example of just how flexible the public sector can be. It signals too that a model of "one-size-fits all" will no longer do.

Six of the eight regions in England still have incomes below the European average. Despite strong economic growth, record employment and business investment, many still show wide disparities both within and between them.

It is a complex picture that can only be addressed by those working much closer to the ground.

However, on a more encouraging note, two-thirds of major inward investment projects in 2000 went to regions outside London and the South-east. There can be no doubt regional agencies have been crucial. By freeing them from uniformity there is even greater potential for each region to play to its strengths and boost its economy.

As the Treasury is at pains to point out, there is nothing inevitable about regional economic imbalances. Every region must grasp the new opportunities and play to its strengths.

But each cannot work on its own: collaboration is a must. This is because many areas with shared problems and issues cut across existing political or administrative boundaries.

The point has been recognised by government with the publication last February of John Prescott's pound;446 million "sustainable communities" plan.

In part driven by the chronic lack of affordable housing in the South-east, the plan identifies four priority areas for growth.

The Thames Gateway - Europe's largest regeneration initiative - is one of the areas and a classic example of the need for cross-border collaboration.

Stretching east from Tower Bridge to Southend in Essex and Sheerness in Kent, it is anticipated that a city the size of Leeds will move into the Gateway by 2016. With this expansion will come new jobs, skills and businesses.

The project presents a unique set of challenges for all the public bodies and planning agencies involved. This is because the Gateway spans three RDA and LSC boundaries.

More importantly, the new patterns of economic migration and travel to work demand a more innovative set of responses from those planning post-16 education than in the past.

How do you cater for the workforce development needs of the 30,000 commuters who travel in from Essex to the City every day? Do you plan for learners attending a local college or through new collaborative arrangements that locate courses where the new growth in jobs is likely to be?

Similarly, with 40,000 new jobs expected in Canary Wharf alone, in addition to big regeneration projects in Greenwich, Stratford and the Olympic sites, how do you secure more of these jobs for local people by giving them better skills? Currently a disproportionate number of workers inworking in the new east London development zones come from outside ?

These are big questions for those trying to get to grips with regional policy. They demonstrate, too, evolution of the LSC, from a purely funding body to the planning and strategic catalyst it was always meant to be.

Tom Bewick was appointed by the LSC in October 2003 as director with responsibility for the Thames Gateway

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