Experiences of employment and skills devolution: Liverpool City Region

The City Region argues that devolution has allowed it to move away from policy silos and address interconnected problems in a far more joined up way, for example Households into Work having an impact on social housing strategy.


Liverpool City Region has a population of around 1.5 million people and covers Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens, Wirral, Halton and Knowsley. It takes a strategic role on policy and commissioning, working with councils, the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), central government, employers and community and voluntary sector organisations.  

Over the last decade the economy has grown by £6.5bn and is now worth £32bn. The area is home to 49,000 businesses, the vast majority of which are SMEs. The area is also host to investment by large multi-nationals; one of Unilever’s eight global research hubs is based in Daresbury Science and Innovation Park.

The employment rate before the coronavirus crisis was 73%. GCSE attainment at age 16 is behind the national rate, which has led to an increase in investment in skills provision focused on qualifications up to level 2.

There is potential for additional growth, through addressing opportunities and challenges, which include automation, which is significant given the occupational profile of the local labour market. Low pay remains an issue, with 330,000 people in the region in in-work poverty, and over a quarter (27 per cent) of workers earning less than the Living Wage. In addition, the areas of greatest deprivation have not seen much change over time: “largely the areas that were poor twenty years ago are largely still poor today”. This has been a significant driver for investing in Households into Work, the programme discussed within this case study, with particular reference to commissioning and place making.


Approaches

The inaugural Liverpool City Region mayoral election in 2017 was won by Steve Rotheram. The City Region sees this structure as being responsive to local people and connected to business. It argues the long history of different regional approaches, starting with the City Strategy Pathfinders (2007), provides a strong foundation for the 2015 devolution settlement: "We have been doing this for quite a long time".

Liverpool City Region’s approach has been to build on existing national programmes and Jobcentre Plus support using the Adult Education Budget (AEB) and European Social Fund (ESF) funding. ESF is worth £100m over seven years across the region. The key objectives have been to narrow the gaps for specific groups including by gender, BAME, age and people with disabilities. They have also focused on preparation for economic changes, particularly Brexit, and on improving and expanding careers provision: “not just looking at it from an economic balance or a health perspective, but…that broader place making, community-based approach.”

The biggest change has been a shift from individually-focused interventions to working with whole families and households. This has led to supporting many participants who have multiple, more complex barriers than initial assumptions suggested, which means support is likely to take longer than employment programmes have allowed previously. The city region believes devolution has allowed them a greater partnership approach with government and to make this case for longer-term measurement.


Policy changes

Households into Work

Households into Work, created following learning and evaluation of several employment programmes, takes a household approach to its delivery. Funding from Liverpool City Region and DWP is worth £4.5m over two and a half years, and follows submission of a business case. Although a similar approach had been discussed with local partners for some time, access to DWP afforded by devolution was described as a ‘key change’.

This was apparent throughout the process, from conception and design – the ability to provide local input and understanding of local needs - through to the commissioning process. Involvement in the latter, seen as a direct result of devolution, meant that as well as supporting the process of assessing bids, Liverpool City Region were also involved in interviews. This allowed DWP to test the proposals in real time against the local expertise of Liverpool City Region. This was seen to have a significant impact: "I think what we’ve ended up with is a far more locally connected, understood and knit-together programme than…previously." Liverpool City Region and DWP continue to have quarterly partnership review meetings, with DWP retaining overall control of performance management.

Liverpool City Region had the opportunity to design a programme based on what the evidence showed worked in its locality, resulting in three main aspects to the programme:

  • key worker case management approach – key workers (advocates) have more flexibility in terms of time with clients and location of meetings;
  • personal budget gave people more control and ownership over their support and access to finances to pay for help they need – this has been used to pay for clothing, equipment and travel expenses; and
  • family or whole household approach – Liverpool City Region wanted to understand whether young people were not taking up apprenticeship opportunities because they were worried about the impacts on their parents’ benefits. 

The programme has evaluation built in from the outset, enabling the Region to understand the ‘scale of the challenge’ that participants face in a way that has not previously been possible. This has been particularly true for participants with mental health conditions and those affected by domestic violence. This ethnographic approach enabled Liverpool City Region to understand the long-term and complex nature of these issues, and advocate for longer term outcomes. Evaluation is combined with regular feedback sessions with advocates in which common issues are identified. For example, a number of social housing needs were raised which have now been used to support housing strategy. This has enabled Liverpool City Region to work across public services and look at broader household needs, and how households can address those needs themselves.


Lessons learned

Partnership and relationships

Persistence in developing good relationships with national government and agencies was described as ‘critical’. This requires work to maintain relationships through focus, good communication, sharing and celebrating success, as well as taking ownership when things do not occur as expected.

Long-term outcomes take a long time

Challenges that have built up over a long period take time to address. This requires a long-term approach, joined up across public services. Ensuring the design and delivery of programmes is built on local buy-in and knowledge can increase their chances of success.

Joining up approaches

The City Region argues that devolution has allowed it to move away from policy silos and address interconnected problems in a far more joined up way, for example Households into Work having an impact on social housing strategy. This can help support be organised around people and their needs, rather than working from service plans.

Ensuring stability of providers and delivery

Following the award of devolved AEB, Liverpool City Region mitigated financial risk by using an experienced team to manage this, and has taken a low risk approach to commissioning in the first year of delivery.

Understanding the scale of the challenge

Liverpool City Region identified more people with complex and profound barriers to work than anticipated, despite the experience of previous delivery. In particular the needs of individuals with mental ill health and survivors of domestic violence were beyond expectation: "we've been surprised and saddened by the scale of the challenges we face."

Need for evidence and evaluation

Households into Work was set up alongside an ethnographic study by the University of Liverpool. This focused on an analysis of circumstances, needs and resolution, and has been seen as integral to ensuring the programme continues to iterate to meet the needs of those it serves: “evaluation has been really important to identify that we got the need right.”

Adjusting to working differently

Liverpool City Region was keen that a new programme worked with households rather than just individuals, but found it harder than anticipated to engage subsequent members from a household. Advocates on the frontline are reporting that this is in part because it is hard to challenge the preconceptions of a ‘normal programme’. The Region will be exploring this further in the future.