Back in 2019, the Conservatives’ commitment to ‘level up the whole economy and unleash Britain’s potential’ seemed to be a nod to the so-called ‘left behind’ communities of northern England and the Midlands. One general election and pandemic later, the party is pledging billions to close the gaps between English regions – not least with the announcement of its £4 billion ‘Levelling Up Fund’ – in an apparent attempt to appease newly won voters in the ‘Red Wall’.
Yet if the Centre for Cities’ recent research is anything to go by, it isn’t just northern regions that will be scrambling for government investment. Indeed, the coronavirus crisis has blurred regional inequalities that once seemed so distinct. With unemployment rates spiralling in previously thriving areas of the Greater South East of England (a region comprising London, the South East and the East), there is now, according to the report, a genuine risk of ‘levelling down’. Though the recovery from Covid will be markedly different to the longer-term challenge of narrowing regional divergences, southern regions, including the East of England, would do well to take note of the report’s warnings.
Cue the release of the government’s highly anticipated ‘Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth’ White Paper. Committing to investment in higher-level technical qualifications through its Skills Bootcamps and improvements to apprenticeship courses, the government has set out a clear vision for education and training, with the provision of genuine alternatives to university degrees.
Why does this matter? The government points to evidence that shows a clear demand for higher technical skills, which is not being satisfied by the existing education and skills system. Indeed, the UK lags behind its competitors – including Germany, France and the US – whose labour force is approximately 25 per cent more productive. In the context of hopes for a speedy economic recovery from the pandemic and of a need to upskill the domestic workforce post-Brexit, higher-level technical skills could be critical in driving productivity and in providing high-quality jobs to people across the country.
Nowhere is this shortage of skills more apparent than in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector, where it is estimated an additional 700,000 technicians will be needed to meet employer demand in the decade to 2024. For the East of England region, a magnet to STEM workers and second only to the neighbouring South East, the government’s ‘Skills for jobs’ offer is a golden opportunity to invest further in the skills required to sustain the growth of this sector.
That is not to say that efforts have not already been made to develop the skills needed to match business need. Indeed, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has been particularly vocal about its commitment to establishing an economy ‘grounded in high-skilled, better paid jobs’ through an ‘inclusive world-class local skills eco-system’. Yet this is a diverse, and immensely unequal, region, where some of England’s most deprived constituencies sit alongside its most affluent. If local leaders are as committed to the ‘levelling up’ agenda as much as national government appears to be, addressing inequalities in education and skills should, therefore, be a priority.