KeyCities Logo

News & Views

New report on skills

Skills for cities, skills for life
Key Cities Newsdesk
October 17, 2023
A new report by Key Cities, the UK’s largest network of urban areas outside London, has called for skills funding and devolution to be prioritised to help boost struggling local finances and the wider UK’s economic productivity.

The report, Skills for Cities, Skills for Life, has been published in the context of many local authorities across the country seeing their financial models coming under incredible budgetary pressures.

Alongside necessary short-term measures and a fair funding deals, Key Cities is using the report launch to call for greater devolution of skills powers and funding as a pivotal long-term measure to support local economies, which in turn will boost national productivity.

The report outlines how local authorities are best placed to understand the needs and opportunities in their area and therefore tailor the most appropriate provision. Greater devolution of skills powers and funding would enable local businesses to be more competitive by equipping them with better trained and educated local talent – boosting local finances and the wider economy.

The overall conclusion is simple: No growth strategy will succeed unless the right skills are available in the right places.

Cllr Imran Khan, Deputy Leader of Bradford City Council  Key Cities Portfolio Lead on Skills, commented:

“Improving opportunities for citizens to access learning throughout their lives is key if the benefits of future growth are to be widely shared. Better skills, better employment leading to more growth for all.

“Our current, fragmented system needs a fresh approach and greater devolution of powers and budgets to drive up the UK’s productivity. The payoff for getting this right will be enormous: a much more competitive position for UK businesses and a better quality of life for our people.”

Skills powers and funding are currently “centralised, fragmented and inefficient”, according to Joanne Dobson Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Coventry University. This is exacerbated by underinvestment in skills in the UK, which is below the OECD average. As a result, both young people and adults, 42% of which do not participate in any adult learning, are at a distinct disadvantage and unable to contribute to their full potential. If this is to continue, then the UK will fail in its mission to Level Up – socioeconomic inequalities will widen.

To address this skills gap, Key Cities, a network of 28 cities that represents nearly seven million people – over 10% of the UK’s population, has made six key policy recommendations:


  1. Comprehensively devolve skills powers and funding, not just to mayoral combined authorities but to municipalities, to better tailor provision to local needs and opportunities.

Local areas require the flexibility to design and fund programmes to meet needs identified by LSIPs and local partnerships, and to be effective, these decisions need to be taken at the right level for the local labour market and travel to work and learn area. The current approach is insufficient to simplify the marketplace and increases the number of bodies education providers are accountable to.

  1. Provide significant and dedicated funding to improve information and advice services about careers and skills training for people at all stages of their working lives.

Inadequate and poor information fails to deliver the right skills for employers and prevents individuals from accessing opportunities that are right for them. The crucial importance of this is recognised in the Greater Manchester and West Midlands trailblazer deals. Local leadership and integration of the offer for careers and jobs is key to maximising return on the taxpayer’s investment.

  1. Significantly expand opportunities for lifelong learning and retraining, including wider entitlement to free study and support for adults looking to upskill from Levels 2 through 5, to keep pace with changes in technology and the environment.

The future of work is a constantly changing landscape, affected by automation, disruptions in regulation and trade, and the transition to net zero. While creating attractive opportunities for new skills, these changes also threaten jobs with low or out-of-date skills and the system must be agile enough to compete.

  1. Improve technical pathways at levels 1 and 2 from the age of 14, including an effective pre-apprenticeship programme.

The renewed focus on level 3 qualifications is welcome but hard to deliver when 40% of young people do not currently reach that level by the age of 19. Reinforcing level 1 and 2 pathways is vitally important for cities to support thousands of young people and adults to improve their skills.

  1. Increase investment in skills to the OECD average across further and higher education, student and business support.

A competitive approach to funding will allow devolved authorities to put vitally needed 3-5-year settlements in place, enabling education partners to plan their strategic curriculum and capital requirements to meet economic and social needs.

  1. Government to work with Key Cities to design and trial scalable models focused on integrating skills supply, skills utilisation, infrastructure alignment, Good Work job design, and business support.

The government should remove obstacles, bureaucracy and funding silos to allow local needs to be addressed.

Cllr John Merry, Chair of Key Cities and Deputy Mayor of Salford, said:

“Uneven productivity across the country is the biggest barrier to growth. Technology is advancing at pace and the skills gaps are costing us billions. This includes an urgent need to upskill in green economies as part of the drive to net zero. The solution is to develop optimal mechanisms for supporting the needs of local industry and the local labour market. The government has introduced statutory Local Skills Improvement Partnerships and a new framework for lifelong learning which are welcome, but not all the right voices are always heard and decision-making is often not sufficiently local.

“The fact is that if the skills approach is not delivering to best effect locally, then (a) it isn’t levelling up, and (b) it won’t deliver the hoped-for improvement in productivity and growth. Key Cities’ experience in the country’s largest and most diverse network of urban areas highlights the ways in which we can work with government and others to develop those optimal mechanisms.”

Skills for Cities, Skills for Life, follows recent reports by the network, including Levelling Up, Emissions Down, which highlighted how local authorities hold the key to addressing the climate crisis, and Culture and Place in Britain which partnered with Arts Council England to demonstrate the role culture can play in boosting places and supporting communities.

More Posts