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Experiences of employment and skills devolution: Cornwall Council

The devolution of employment and skills led to the profile of these areas being raised within both the local authority and the LEP and has resulted in the creation of a fully resourced and funded team to manage programmes and strategy.

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Cornwall Council was the first rural authority to be offered a devolution deal, covering areas including: employment and skills; health and social care; transport; EU funding; and business support. The council has a population of 568,200 and is spread over 1,300 square miles. It can be difficult to travel around the county and this can have an impact on access to work and skills. There are 24,450 businesses in Cornwall: the majority are microbusinesses, with only 70 large employers.

Before the coronavirus crisis, 8,600 people were unemployed in Cornwall. This is 3.2%, lower than the 3.9% seen nationally. Challenges include the quality and type of work on offer, with part-time and seasonal work featuring significantly. Total earnings are at 79 per cent of UK average and productivity stands at 69 per cent of the UK average.

The proportion of people qualified to level 4 or above rose from 25% in 2011 to 37% in 2019, still below the 40% UK average. Conversely, only 5.9% have no qualifications, lower than the UK average of 7.7%.

The employment and learning provider base is primarily made up of small, local, independent providers. This includes two further education (FE) providers that deliver the majority of vocational qualifications. Local provision is also delivered through the local authority and the Devon and Cornwall training provider network.

This case study is focused on two direct delivery programmes: the Beacon Project and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Growth Programme.


Cornwall’s 2015 devolution deal included provisions for:

  • Developing the relationship between the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and the government to reshape further education training and provision for adults, in the absence of full devolution of the Adult Education Budget;
  • Creating a campaign for apprenticeships, including a Cornwall apprenticeships website;
  • Setting up Growth and Skills Hubs, facilitating a direct brokerage point for businesses;
  • Improving careers support for young people. The council has since developed a Careers Hub by working with the Careers and Enterprise Company; and
  • Ongoing programmes to help people into employment, with a particular focus on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants.

As a result of devolution, Cornwall Council was also awarded 'Intermediate Body' (IB) status for EU funds, including the European Social Fund (ESF). This allows it to have more influence over the way these funds are designed and commissioned. As ESF is used to match fund many skills and employment schemes, IB status is important and can allow a better strategic match between local authority objectives and programmes funded. This approach has allowed the Council to access £10 million matched funding for programmes: “the governance and the strategic prioritisation process that has come from devolution is the real win”.

Policy changes

Beacon Project

Cornwall Council’s Beacon Project aims to lower the disability employment gap. Initially the proposal was to test and trial a model for changing the ‘mindset’ of business owners toward recruitment and retention of people with disabilities or long-term health conditions. Through the development of a free digital tool, it aims to draw together practical advice and support on helping people stay healthy and remain in work, and to offer this to help employers. It is funded by the Government’s Work and Health Unit (£465,000) and HM Treasury (£77,000).

The Beacon Project aims to engage SMEs who may be unsure or worried about how to handle workplace health and disability issues. It seeks to:

  • Understand what affects decision making on recruitment and retention of people with disabilities and long-term health conditions.
  • Understand how to nuance messaging to support and change the mindset of business owners.
  • Test and trial small digital approaches with the potential to scale up.
  • Link into the Growth and Skills hub to offer a ‘One Stop Shop’.
  • Increase uptake of Disability Confident.

Cornwall Council intend to scale the project across a further six LEP areas over the next 12 months. Expressions of interest have been registered from several areas outside of Cornwall. The Council are feeding results back into the Government’s Work and Health Unit so that learning can be used to support the development of similar programmes.

The free digital tool, developed by Evident Agency, draws together practical advice and support for employers. The product covers information on health and wellbeing, managing sickness absence and disability and health in the workplace. Businesses can access support from a dedicated webpage, which has been developed to support engagement with SMEs and meet their operational needs.

The University of Exeter are evaluating the Beacon Project and the University of Plymouth are working on its social marketing, identifying behaviour change and messaging for businesses. The Council are also keen to explore ways to use engagement with the Beacon Project as an accreditation tool to flag and reward responsible businesses.

Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Growth Programme (ESF)

Through devolution, Cornwall Council gained IB status, meaning that decisions on allocating £184 million of European funding to 40 projects are now made locally. This allows the Council to think about potential training and employment needs arising from capital investment. A strategic board oversees this, and its priorities for investment are:

  • Increasing labour market participation.
  • Promoting social inclusion.
  • Developing the skills of the potential and existing workforce.
  • Support for young people who are NEET or at risk of being NEET.

All funding calls are made through an Intermediary Body Officer employed by the Council. This enables the Council to better frame and align its employment and skills delivery to meet local needs and work with priority groups in different geographies across Cornwall. It believes that expanding the remit of this approach to cover more investment sources would avoid duplication and maximising the impact of support.

Lessons Learned

Devolution requires adequate resource

The devolution programme required significant resource including skills in procurement and governance at a regional and local authority level. This level of resource needs to be anticipated and planned for from the start.

The Intermediate Body was critical

The value of joined up strategic thinking and a shared approach is considered to have been critical for success.

Think clearly about your ‘devolution ask’

The initial devolution ‘ask’ should be tailored to an area’s unique geography and need. Resource allocation needs to be sufficient to deliver what devolution is seeking to achieve.

Devolved delivery requires adequate resource

The devolution of employment and skills led to the profile of these areas being raised within both the Local Authority and the LEP and has resulted in the creation of a fully resourced and funded team to manage programmes and strategy.

Partnerships are key

Devolution has enabled the business community and the voluntary sector to have their voice in local decision making. It has been important for them to be part of co-designing delivery and has enabled the Council to support the delivery network.

Communication is important

Business engagement takes time. It is important to get clear messages out as soon as possible - communications and marketing need to start at an early stage.