Basildon Advice Store

The Basildon Advice Store opened in 2019 and is run by Basildon Council. Residents may walk in and use it to access employment-related skills from a range of local providers.

Most of this case study was compiled in spring 2020. There is an updated section at the end.

Motivation: providing easy access to skills provision, to meet local labour needs

The Basildon Advice Store sits in a prominent location in Basildon Town Centre. It is run by Basildon Council, a shire district in Essex. Residents may walk in and use it to access employment-related skills from a range of local providers. It opened in January 2019 and by November 2019 over 2,500 residents had dropped in. They have benefitted from a wide variety of courses, workshops and other events.

The Store resulted from a programme called “Pathways to Success”. This programme was led by a “Pathway Panel”, whose membership included both the district council and Essex County Council and head teachers from Basildon and Billericay.

The borough is experiencing steady economic growth, but still has significant levels of deprivation and low skills attainment. It has global freight and port hubs and is set to benefit from these and its proximity to London and strong business environment, with forecasted prosperity for the local economy. However, there are 12,720 residents claiming unemployment benefits – 2.1per cent higher than the rest of the East of England – and some residents represent a second, third or fourth generation of unemployment.

There is therefore a significant challenge in ensuring that growth in the district is inclusive, bringing residents into employment who are currently excluded from the labour force. While employers reported finding it difficult to recruit locally, there was no shortage of local providers of skills, employment support and related services. The courses they provided, though, had low take-up rates. This suggested a communication issue. The panel realised that there was a communication deficit even for its own members – for example, schools sometimes did not find out about events until too late for them to get involved.

The conclusion was that simply offering advice and courses on the worldwide web was not enough, if providers then relied on residents to be proactive in using the web to access them. Furthermore, they would be faced with a confusing landscape in which many providers offered the same or similar courses.

Planning and opening the Advice Store

The district council’s plan to tackle this was to seek a town centre store in which residents could meet local providers. There would be front of house staff who would do an initial assessment and refer on to the appropriate provider. The economic development team consulted with the providers to determine their needs for such premises and used this to build a case for funding from the council. It was planned as a one-year pilot, with the aim of bringing those furthest from the job market into it or at least closer to it (though there was some variance in the specific outcomes sought by the providers).

A site was found in an ideal location: close to the main council building (used by residents for a variety of services) and the bus and train stations, and overlooking the marketplace and town square. 15 organisations were represented in the store at its inception, including the county council and its service providers, two housing associations, educational institutions, private sector companies and voluntary sector organisations.

The store opened its doors on 7 January 2019, at which point there was still a lot of work to do on it, but this was complete in time for a major launch event on 27 January. There were 238 walk-in referrals in January alone.

Success – January 2019 to March 2020

Since then, the success has continued, with over 30 organisations now involved in the running and support of the centre. Many of them run courses and workshops. For example, Clarion Housing has delivered CV writing workshops, helping 20 people to improve their CVs to date. The Princes Trust held a two-day digital skills workshop for 7 people. The courses run by South Essex College will each support 20-25 people; 23 people participated in their first two-week employability course.

Several organisations have careers advisors in store and two employers have held interviews there.

There is a focus on those with particular barriers to employment and a range of support services are provided. WEA College is running a course to help parents support young people with challenging behaviours. Both Papworth Trust and Signpost particularly aim their programmes at people with disabilities and long-term health issues. The County Council’s supported employment programme, delivered by social enterprise Realise Futures, is also represented in store. The Essex Lifestyle Service, commissioned by the County Council from community interest company Provide, can also be accessed in store – this includes social prescribing, help to stop smoking, and support for healthier lifestyles and improved wellbeing and workplace health. Peabody housing association also provides an outreach service which includes debt management. A “Frazzled Café” was held on World Mental Health Day, with a range of organisations including the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) helping to raise awareness of mental health issues in the workplace. Citizens’ Advice initially had a presence in the store and are now located opposite.

The store has improved participation in skills courses and helped people into work. South Essex College says:

Using the Advice Store to promote our training to the local community has given us a wider reach and we are now seeing more people enrol and succeed on our short occupational focused courses.   Learners tell us that the experience they have with us and The Advice Store gives them hope and changes their lives.  Support is on hand to help them with any concern or problem and barriers are eliminated as we watch them progress into work.   Other positive outcomes have included anger and stress management, improved family relationships, eradicating loneliness, developing aspirations, changing negative mindsets and understanding personal finance.

Over 200 people have been referred to the South Essex Construction Training Academy (SECTA) for free construction training and help to gain employment.

Improvement – January 2019 to March 2020

Since opening, the store has taken action to improve its offering and its internal efficiency. With other councils keen to replicate their success, Basildon is keen to make clear that these issues are best dealt with at the outset. The most crucial ones are around the design of the premises. At first, there was no wifi installed – this has now been dealt with, using external funding. They have also started making accessibility improvements, such as ensuring there is a wheelchair-accessible training room and ensuring posters are at appropriate heights, and are looking into others, such as installing a hearing loop.

Getting the wifi installed has allowed them to improve administration. When a resident walks in, the initial assessment is carried out using a “referral form”. As well as for directing the resident to the appropriate provider, this form has been used for internal evaluation purposes. It was intially done on paper. This proved problematic because of data protection issues and the sheer volume of paperwork. With the wifi installed, they have switched to using Google Forms for collecting this data. For similar projects in the future, Basildon suggests, these matters are best addressed at the start, taking into consideration the data needs of all the partners involved.

The store’s budget was underspent in the pilot year. Funding has now been identified for the store to continue to operate. Funding from Basildon alone would have been insufficient for more than about 18 months’ continued operation, but SECTA had paid for an internal improvement and were making an ongoing contribution. Discussions with other providers resulted in them paying per desk used per day. Other funding comes from transparent advertising on the windows, meaning that costs are more than covered and money is left for further improvements.

Update June 2021

Due to the COVID restrictions, the Advice Store closed its doors to face-to-face appointments on 17th March 2020, adopting a digital referral route and telephone appointments to all providers. This saw an inevitable dip in referrals to the store due to the lack of digital inclusion across the borough. Social media was used to raise awareness of a number of opportunities for people across the borough. The council’s Economic Development Team put a lot of effort into COVID-Recovery.

The Advice Store briefly opened its doors in summer 2020 on a part-time basis and saw a minimal return from the provision but a large footfall from residents wanting support. The store then had to close again due to local lockdown measures and then the national lockdown after Christmas.

The Advice Store was finally able to open again on 13th April 2021. Since then, the organisations have gradually been returning to the store with different working arrangements. The store is fully COVID compliant, with screens and two metres between desks. Over 200 residents have entered the store since opening and the footfall is increasing weekly.

The store will become a Youth Hub in August, as part of the DWP scheme for young jobseekers. This, together with the announcement of new schemes such as the Government’s Restart Scheme and the Job Entry Targeted Support (JETS) programme run by Jobcentre Plus, will see new provision to the store.

When the lease on the current site expires, the store will move to a new site in the town centre and planning is currently underway for this. This fresh start in a different venue is a being viewed as good opportunity to take all the lessons learnt to a new site and start afresh.

There have been changes in the control of the district council, but the new leadership fully supports the Advice Store and its work on employment and skills.