The new LSC boss in the East of England vows to bring urban vitality from the streets of Newham to wake up her peaceful patch. Joe Clancy reports
After 15 years running FE projects in east London, Mary Conneely could hardly have had a more dramatic change.
She has swapped the hustle of a deprived, ethnically mixed urban area for the leafy affluence and rural peace of eastern England.
The contrast can be seen from her office windows. As executive director of the East London district of the Learning and Skills Council, her office in Stratford overlooked a busy railway junction.
Now, as the council's new regional director for the East of England operating from the fringes of St Albans, Hertfordshire, all she can see is trees.
She is one of only three of England's nine new regional directors to be appointed from outside their area. Her new patch takes in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk.
Its ethnic minority population is just half the England average and is concentrated in Luton and Peterborough. Yet, she insists the area has its own kind of diversity.
"This is a region that does everything from microchips to potato chips," she says. "It has a calmness about it which is very different from the East End. It is quite a fascinating region, a sleeping giant with a pound;76 billion economy.
"It is one of the three regions that contributes more to the economy in taxation than it takes in spending on public services, along with London and south-east England.
"The region has the highest overall employment rate in the UK, with 79 per cent of the working-age population in work. It is the fastest growing region in the country, through inward migration from London.
"But it also includes Great Yarmouth which is the third highest unemployment blackspot in the country after Barnsley and Newcastle. And in Essex there are four wards that are ranked in the 10 most deprived in England."
She describes the east of England as a region of two halves, divided by a line from the Wash to Westcliff on the Thames estuary.
To the west of that line are the pharmaceutical and high-tech industries around Cambridge. The east is dominated by farming, food production and craft industries such as furniture-making and boat-building.
She adds: "We call this the ideas region. It has the highest research and development spend of all the English regions, and most of that spending comes from the private sector.
"Around Cambridge university there is the highest spin-off in intellectual capital of any university area in Europe, where we are generating ideas for science, engineering, hi-tech and biodiversity businesses.
"There are new energy plans for off the Norfolk coast involving wave and wind developments. We have got the headquarters of all the big pharmaceutical giants. There is a growth in medical research across the region.
"Yet overall it has a low skills base. On the one hand we have all this potential and wealth, and on the other there is a lot of exclusion based on rural exclusion."
The wide range of industries across the region demand a wide range of skills. A Centre of Vocational Excellence programme is being expanded through colleges to meet the skills shortage.
She points out that Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex have the lowest proportions of people in higher education in the country: half the national average of 3.5 per cent in Norfolk and Suffolk, and just 1.1 per cent in Essex.
"Suffolk has no university," she adds, "so the brightest young people leave to go to university and don't come back until they retire. So we have a high ageing population and a low level of HE participation and graduate retention.
"We have to lift everybody's game so more people are achieving, and higher level skills jobs being generated are being taken by people from inside the region."
What she discovered when taking up her regional role in March was that there was little cohesion and partnership work in tackling the problems, and she is now setting about putting that right.
Strategies are now being developed with the East of England Development Agency and there is a regional European Social Fund plan involving Jobcentre Plus.
"In east London it was second nature to work in partnerships and even if you didn't like your bedfellows you got on with the job," she explains.
"Here we have to overcome that slowness of not being joined up."