Greater regional autonomy is the road to UK economic recovery

Regional autonomy and a decentralised model could be the key to recovery, says Kirstie Donnelly.

We’ve all felt the impact of the pandemic this year. Whether that be from job losses, furlough or budget cuts – Covid-19 has created widespread challenges for businesses and individuals alike.

On a macro level, with the latest ONS unemployment data revealing that unemployment has surged to 4.8%, the UK economy is facing a worrying outlook. And, with further uncertainty looming, there may be much worse to come.

But, while we have all felt the effects of this year, some areas in the UK have been far more badly impacted than others.

Crucially, some regional economies – such as Liverpool and London – are highly reliant on sectors such as travel and tourism, culture, and retail which have borne the brunt of the crisis. And this challenge is only heightened by additional strain put on UK businesses by local lockdowns and restrictions. 

To fully comprehend these regional differences and what each area needs to get their businesses back on track and the unemployed back into the workplace, City & Guilds met with local Government leaders and employers across six regions over the summer.

It’s time to devolve more power to regional leaders and let them work together with local employers to decide where skills funding should be prioritised.

The message that came back was loud and clear: Covid-19 has rendered the Government’s current ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to skills and education ineffective and outdated.

There were a number of common themes that arose, the most crucial of which being that regional authorities, business leaders and the Government must work together to take distinct and radical action, immediately.

But what does this entail for businesses and L&D leaders? Below are some of the key approaches taken from these meetings, outlining how employers can work with the Government and local authorities to make a positive difference in their regions:

Grant greater regional autonomy to deal with local employment challenges 

It’s time to devolve more power to regional leaders and let them work together with local employers to decide where skills funding should be prioritised. 

With this in mind, the Government should be building national policies with a ‘bottom up’ mindset – providing flexible policies that ensure each region can implement tailored strategies that have a meaningful impact for local businesses and members of their communities. 


But for this to be effective, local authorities and businesses need to approach this with an entrepreneurial, growth-led mindset and be clear about the skills they need as their economy and workplaces evolve. Authorities and business leaders must work together to match skills to jobs, and supply to demand. 

Remove skills funding barriers and ease access for businesses

Maintaining investment in people and skills becomes even more business critical in periods of economic upheaval. So, at a time when many businesses are struggling to fund training for new and existing employees, and candidates may not be able to afford courses that allow them to upskill, existing Government funding could be a vital resource for many.

By tapping into this funding, candidates could get the skills they need to apply for jobs and businesses could ensure they have the supply of skills they need, despite financial strain. 

But, if local businesses and individuals cannot access or don’t know how to use government loans or funding, this creates a clear waste of investment that could be put to good use.

In order to ensure jobseekers have the necessary skills to more effectively meet employer and labour demand, it’s up to Government to remove the red tape, devolve and open up skills funding channels, so that it allows all adults – even those who have already completed compulsory education – to access any type of skills based learning that leads to a job.

Create employment and training hubs in areas of high unemployment

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the need for retraining and reskilling throughout our working lives, whether to allow people to move from one industry or career to another, or to ensure businesses have the skills they need for the future. 

It’s now, amid this change and heightened awareness, that we have a pivotal moment to promote and create a well-functioning, properly funded lifelong learning system that is attractive and accessible to as many businesses and individuals as possible. 

To make this happen, a national network of employment and training hubs should be created. These localised and digitally enabled hubs would allow local government, businesses and training providers to work together to provide a one-stop skills and jobs matching platform and a ‘shop window for skills’ – making local learning and employment pathways more visible and accessible to jobseekers. 

While the impact of Covid-19 has no quick fix, I believe these steps will be crucial to future-proofing the UK’s economy.

Providing regional authorities with more power and autonomy will have the biggest impact on putting the UK economy on the path to recovery, as businesses and local communities continue to navigate the growing skills gaps, employment crisis and falling productivity caused by the global pandemic.


About the author

Kirstie Donnelly MBE is CEO of City & Guilds Group


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