Northumberland’s ambition is to deliver the ‘Inclusive Economy’ agenda, by joining up investment streams and ensuring employment support is delivered in a more collaborative way across local authority areas. This case study explores the strengths, challenges and impact of the current skills and employment system, and what is required to increase positive outcomes for local residents.
About Northumberland County Council
Northumberland County Council is a unitary authority in north east England. It covers a large area including market towns and very rural localities. Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle councils formed the North of Tyne Combined Authority in 2018.
Vision for the local area
At a county level, and as part of the combined authority, Northumberland’s ambition is to deliver the ‘Inclusive Economy’ agenda. This has involved evolving the relationship with national agencies such as DWP, bringing in more co-design and co-commissioning of programmes and services.
Kevin Higgins, Employability and Inclusion Manager in the council’s economy and regeneration service (ERS), said being in a combined authority had brought benefits – such as being able to join up some investment streams and deliver employment support more collaboratively across local authority areas – but still has a lot to achieve.
For example, at council or combined authority level, there could be further flexibility in terms of the ability to tailor funding to meet local need.
“The ambition would be to have genuine local traction over the reach and design of services. We would like greater discretion and a greater say over co-design and co-commissioning. In some areas the promise of devolution has not been fully realised, and we would like to see a greater interest in ‘localism’ of employment support programmes from central government,” said Kevin.
Work the council is currently undertaking
The ERS manages strategic programmes, in the main delivered through partnership approaches. Examples include the National Lottery Community Fund and European Social Fund (ESF) programmes working with the voluntary and community sector (VCS), housing providers and training and learning providers. The council’s ‘Northumberland Skills’ team delivers a range of adult education and training including 16-18 provision, apprenticeships, careers guidance, and employment advice and support.
The ERS works with North of Tyne Combined Authority (CA) on design and delivery of locally funded labour market interventions. Kevin Higgins said:
“Broadly, we leave the contracted provision to do what it has to do, because that is something we can’t influence a great deal, but we try to coordinate provision and work with prime providers and sub-contractors where we can. Local investment and external funding, in the main, goes into other areas that those contracts don’t touch, adding value locally. We have strong partnerships with North Tyneside and Newcastle councils and join up to coordinate services as much as possible.”
An example of partnership work within North of Tyne CA is the ‘Return to work carers project’ , supporting carers to return to employment, education or training. This is delivered across the combined authority area by three local carers’ organisations, with specialist advisors offering tailored support. It is a good example of design and delivery in response to identified local need, with scope for learning and adjusting as needed.
Another combined authority-wide initiative, and a flagship employment support programme, is the £5.7 million ‘North of Tyne Working Homes’ partnership between housing providers, learning providers and councils, part-funded by ESF. This delivers support to social housing tenants through integration with tenant support teams. It demonstrates working with different organisations in new ways, and aims to support over 2,000 residents and place at least 600 into work or training by June 2023.
Opportunities, barriers and potential solutions
However successful an employment support pilot is, sometimes there is no option to continue this good work once funding ends. Between 2017 and 2019 Northumberland County Council delivered, on behalf of seven local councils, the ‘North East mental health trailblazer’ . It delivered integrated employment support and talking therapies to unemployed people with anxiety and/or depression, to improve their mental wellbeing and help them find work.
More than 1,450 people were supported, with over 270 moving into employment. This pilot, jointly funded with £2.2 million by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and ESF, showed that employment and mental health services could work effectively together. Unfortunately there has not been a way to continue this work, although the local NHS foundation trust is investing in individual placement and support (IPS) for people in secondary care.
More opportunity to influence national initiatives, such as DWP’s ‘Restart’, would be welcomed, Kevin Higgins said.
“National commissioning models mean that we haven’t had a say in how Restart is designed or commissioned. In terms of co-commissioning we remain interested in better integration of services and are keen to do more on linking employment with health and wellbeing, for example.”
Northumberland would like to be able to deliver more place-based approaches, he added.
"In our large county, provision needs to respond to the demands of very different areas, such as urban or coastal deprived areas, market towns and deep rural areas. This can be a challenge with prime provider contracts designed for huge areas. Specific local approaches don’t necessarily fit into their models, and in reality there can be limited autonomy in how contracts meet specific local needs.
“I would like councils and their partners to be able to take a more localised approach to programmes such as Restart. We have the local knowledge and connections. I would like to see us get to a point where we have the ability to have more traction over how national programmes land in our area.”
Data is another issue Kevin highlighted.
“For example, we don’t have much information on how many ‘Kickstart’ places are being delivered in our area in terms of volumes, sectors and occupations. Having this would allow us to use local intelligence to target key areas of need. Better local data sharing should be fundamental to localism and devolution agreements.”
The local perspective
‘Bridge Northumberland’ is a county-wide voluntary programme helping residents who are out of work to overcome barriers to training, education and employment. Led by Northumberland County Council, it brings together a range of local VCS organisations.
Hexham resident Carolyn, then aged 52, wanted to work but felt that nobody would want to take her on because of her age. She came to Bridge with no CV, no IT skills and hadn’t worked for many years. Her marriage had broken down and she had been concentrating on her son’s needs.
Bridge worked with Carolyn at her own pace, building her confidence and self-esteem with work coaching then supporting her in building new skills through volunteering roles. This helped Carolyn to decide that a part-time job would suit her. She attended IT training offered by Bridge. Through her volunteering role she was asked to apply for a part-time job and was offered it, starting work in April 2021.
“Bridge can’t solve all your problems but they put the tools and skills in place to help you get yourself better," said Carolyn.