Rebalancing Nottingham North

3rd February 2015 (Hansard) (Video)


Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I am pleased to be here under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies, on the last day that the House is sitting.


This is a debate on a very important topic—the outer cities. We hear a lot about the inner cities but the outer cities, and I represent an outer-city constituency, often seem to be the forgotten part of the UK. One of the things that I have attempted to do is to bring the outer cities back into focus and back on to the Front-Bench agendas of all parties. Outer cities are often neglected and unbalanced, with too many houses and not enough jobs. There must be a strategy, at both national and local level, to address their problems, and I am happy to be trying to pioneer that approach in my constituency of Nottingham North.


On the first day that the Minister for Skills and Equalities was in his new office, I had an Adjournment debate on part of the agenda that we are putting forward in Nottingham North. I will not today go back over the demographic and statistical background to prove how deprived my constituency is, other than to say it is one of the most deprived constituencies in the UK. I will give one example: it sends the fewest number of young people to university of any constituency in the UK, and, as I will refer to later, it has 1,250 young people who, by the age of 24, have never known a single day’s work in their lives. I could regale Members with other statistics, but I have already done that, so today I will talk about what we are doing locally. We are not being ground down by our circumstances, rather we are getting together, organising and improving our local circumstances in the long term. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more, from his point of view, about how the effective partnership that we have between our locality and national Government Departments is working.


Many local partners have worked together, and continue to do so, on outer-city problems. It is not as if nothing is being done; people are working incredibly hard. However, what we have done in my constituency is to add a further and original element, by creating an independent charity to cover the whole of the Nottingham North area—the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation. I hope that this charity, as it goes through its learning curve, can teach others lessons that can be spread throughout the United Kingdom. That particularly applies to the topic we are discussing today, which is the lessons around economic and business investment in the outer cities.


However, the expectations need to be made realistic from the outset. The role of Rebalancing—if I may call it that—is not only to speak up for the area but to broker the deals and convene the partners who can help. We are not a delivery body. We rely on a small board and a tremendously dedicated staff team from the public and private sectors, who generously give their time and personnel. We are indebted, not least to Public Health England, the local enterprise partnership, the council, Carillion, Nottingham City Homes, further and higher education, and the social enterprises, community and voluntary sector, as well as many others—even the local MP, and I declare an interest, as I am the chair of the Rebalancing charity. The key to all such enterprises of change is and will always be effective partnership working, not just in the locality but also between the local and national levels. Convention forbids me from naming them, but I will put on the record my appreciation of the support and creativity that particularly officials, but also Ministers, have shown. That has been immensely encouraging and helpful.


I will give two small examples of what I mean. One involves retail and shopping. We are working with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), and her Department. We will host an outreach event in Nottingham in the new year, which will bring together a range of local retailers from across the area to build links and share best practice. There are lots of great examples up and down the country of people coming together to breathe life back into their communities, and there is no reason why we cannot apply that energy to the shopping parades on our outer-city estates.


Another example is building on the encouragement of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has responsibility for public health, by bringing forward dental checks for every three-year-old. That is a legal provision at the moment, but it is terribly underused. We would also like to introduce a lung check for every 60-year-old, because we have 1970s levels of smoking in Nottingham North. Finally, we aim to do the first prevalence study of the drinking habits of mums-to-be, so that we can tackle foetal alcohol syndrome, which is so damaging to the growth potential of many of the young people in my constituency.


However, the focus today is on investment. If we are to tackle the problems of outer-city estates sustainably, our investment horizon must be long-term—at least 10 years and preferably much longer. That is hard to achieve when our partners are dealing hand to mouth with the consequences of austerity. That is one of the reasons why our relationship with the LEP is central. Our LEP is called D2N2—Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—and its growth deal not only talked about building roads and bridges but included a commitment to develop our rebalancing outer city estates project, with the aim of getting more people into work, raising education and skill levels, and making better use of local assets and spending. The growth deal also states that the rebalancing project can be used to provide evidence on how these practices can be applied effectively to similar outer-city areas.


Included in the LEP’s growth deal were commitments from the Cabinet Office, the DCLG, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to work with the LEP, to develop proposals and to help put those proposals into action where there is a strong case for doing so. In order to sustain the Rebalancing charity itself, we have submitted a bid to the LEP, which will be decided on in the new year. Separately, we have a big, overarching employment and skills plan, which will be discussed with our key funding partners. We hope to make progress on the main proposals by about March next year. I will come back to that plan a little later.


Fundamental to business investment coming to the rebalancing area is that the labour market is ready, and that local people have the education, skills and training to be able to take the jobs on offer. Again, I could go on about the evidence regarding the demography that we are working with, but I will give just one example from our evidence base. A majority of working-age people in Nottingham North are not qualified to work in anything beyond entry-level—that is, unskilled—employment, and that problem is particularly pronounced among young people. That is one of the worst statistics, or pieces of evidence, showing the problems afflicting Nottingham North, and we are determined to do something about it. To tackle those problems requires consistent and sustained intervention. Little bits of money thrown here and there, which finish after a year or 18 months, can be worse than useless, because they raise expectations; they gear people up, then drop them back down again. A little investment and a little energy provided over a long period will be much more beneficial to communities. They can build on that, and then take over themselves as the investors gently move aside and the process transitions to people entirely running their own affairs.



There are several examples of how we are doing that. I have been discussing the matter with Ofsted and concluded a positive agreement with it and with the principals of the six secondary schools in the constituency, frankly, just to talk to each other outwith the quasi-judicial relationship that Ofsted and inspectors tend to have with schools. Let us talk to each other and find out what works. Let us talk to each other and see if we can understand each other better. As Ofsted expands its inspection regime to include young people who are not going to get 5 A to Cs—the pre-NEETs, if they can be called that—let us talk to each other to see how we can recognise their achievements. I have been to see the Minister about that as well. I can inform him that, since we met last, those meetings are now taking place. Indeed, we are extending them across the whole city, so that heads can understand better and Ofsted can understand heads better. It is one of the lessons that I mentioned earlier. That is absolutely positive progress.


The other thing that we are doing—I alluded to this some time ago, but things have moved on—is the youth engagement fund bid. We are now towards the end of that process. We are still not sure that we are going to win out, but numbers of other applicants have been weeded out as the process has gone on, so we are ever hopeful. If we are lucky enough to get that funding, we intend to have what I would call a careers adviser in every one of my secondary schools. No doubt they are called a life-work coach or some such name these days, but the theory remains the same: helping young people at the earliest possible moment to figure out what their options are in terms of skills, training and employment. They will be there to do that early and to be alongside young people as they grow through school.



The second part of the youth engagement fund bid is to create a small college dedicated to the 14 to 17-year-old group that I mentioned—what we might call the pre-NEETs—so that those people have their own place to go to. Just as the heads are dealing with the five A to C group at school, we want to place those other young people in an environment where they may want to go on and study. We are locating that college in the middle of a completely rebuilt further education college in the middle of my constituency. It was a great privilege to go on site with a hard hat and wellies, with Ofsted and all our principals and local head teachers, to see where the 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEET college will be, as it is being developed and built. I believe that it will be occupied around the middle of next year.


That college has much more potential. We are rebuilding on part of it, but it also has some land, which in the outer cities is an incredible asset. It is not a green field. Every last bit of land and property, every last street corner and every derelict site must be used to try incrementally to bring work, skills and training back into an area like mine. Using what is called the Basford Hall further education college of New College, Nottingham will be fantastically important.


I want to focus a little bit on something rather closer to home for the Minister and the Department: the disadvantaged learners scheme. We are working on proposals for the disadvantaged learners scheme with the LEP and with central Government help. The LEP commitment is to work with Government and other parties to co-design, test ideas and learn from the disadvantaged learners pilot. We are happy to be one of the guinea pigs—we hope, if we are so lucky. Central Government’s commitment is to support the LEP in developing a targeted ward-level pilot, focused on addressing skills challenges faced by disadvantaged learners with multiple barriers to employment and, subject to agreement on the proposals, to make funding and flexibilities available within the adult skills budget. The pilot will consider how local partners can work together to improve outcomes.


A key word in that regard is “flexibilities”. It is always helpful if extra resource is given, but much of what we need to do in a place such Nottingham North, in the rebalancing area, is about having discretions around the edges to let people get on and do the job as they see it, to trial particular approaches, rather than just going straight down the line, with people saying, “Do it this way or not at all.” I know it is difficult—Whitehall has to run the whole country—but I have found that officials and Ministers are positive about minor changes that could be trialled and looked at in places such as Nottingham North, just to make the system work a little smoother, in the way that we all intended in the first place.


The disadvantaged learners fund complements the bigger, overarching employment and skills plan that we are putting together. The ambition behind that plan is for all those who live in Nottingham North to embark on a journey through education, skills and training and, ultimately, employment. Yes, it applies to the hardest to reach, but to everybody else as well. That is our ambition. It is a big one, but we think we can do it, given time, patience, flexibility and the drive that all our local partners are bringing to bear. The overarching employment and skills plan brings help at every stage of that journey, from helping people to address their initial barriers to work and training, to engaging employers in local labour schemes, and assisting people to access formal accredited training and qualifications to levels 2 and 3 and beyond.


In the big plan there are five key initiatives. I do not think the Minister has heard this before, because we have only just pulled it together and we are working with officials in his Department and others to be clearer about them. All the initiatives are of some benefit to disadvantaged learners, and some support the delivery of formal accredited training and access into employment for the hardest-to-reach groups.


First, community job coaches will provide continuous mentoring and pastoral support to the hardest-to-reach jobseekers throughout their journey to employment. Instead of popping in every so often, asking, “How’s it going?”, there will be someone with them, who they can have confidence in and ask the right questions of and who will take them on the journey. Then there will be the great moment when that person is totally independent and can fly on their own.


Secondly, personal employability budgeting will meet the unforeseen costs that prevent jobseekers from the deprived estates of Nottingham North from accessing training and work. Those things crop up, and a little flexibility around a budget can get a young person to an interview, get them in good shape and allow them to do the necessary things that they need to do to ensure that they are getting the opportunity.


Thirdly, community-employer partnerships will encourage employers to engage more with local communities, give greater support and get more involved in employability interventions. That sounds pretty straightforward, Mr Davies. You and I normally would just put a circular letter out, saying, “Come along to a meeting, have a sausage on a stick and talk to me about this issue.” However, it is a bit harder to do in a place with a demography like that of Nottingham North. I have done that and ended up with just two small employers in the room. In such places a one-man business has to shut the shop for two hours for the privilege of going to have a little chat with the Member of Parliament. We need to work harder on that. Certainly, we are working closely with the Federation of Small Businesses to do that.


Fourthly, a skills in the community element will deliver accredited vocational training and qualifications in a community setting and alongside mentoring and the softer types of community-based support. There was a cull—some of us would say, “About time, too”—of a lot of accredited courses. I have discussed this openly and sensibly with the Minister, and I think that the baby went out with the bathwater in a number of cases. A number of courses performed a really good function in getting a young person back into thinking about education: attending, working, writing. Frankly, if it does that, it has the makings of being the sort of course that people might want to accredit, because it starts a young person who has dropped off the conveyor belt back on the journey to skills, training and work. I am of course not saying that anything will do. That attitude was around before. However, sometimes we need to go back, have another look at the list and say, “There are a number of courses on there that should be reaccredited.” That way, we can start to get these young people on that journey. It all starts with that first step.


The fifth and final initiative is a local growth plan to develop and implement strategy to support local businesses, helping them to grow and create jobs for unemployed residents in Nottingham North. A variety of barriers exist to all those things. If it was easy, we would have done it a long time ago. The Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation is well placed to talk to the people who the normal public sector institutions sometimes find it difficult to link to, through, for example, drug and alcohol work, youth work, sometimes community protection, mental health and even public health and housing. Bringing those areas in and engaging them in addressing social and personal issues is an end in itself, but another consequence of engaging with those people is that they will start to think about training, skills and employment.


If successful, our disadvantaged learners fund bid would set up a partnership to manage personal employability budgets and employ community jobs coaches, embedding them in the local community. That would not be the Rebalancing foundation, but a third party, properly procured and tested to ensure that it could deliver high-quality employability budgets and community jobs coaches. Those coaches would provide one-to-one pastoral support to develop some of these young people who do not have basic social and emotional capabilities, such as one would expect from a young person serving people in a retail shop, selling a tie or whatever. These young people are not capable of engaging and having that sort of negotiation and interaction. Sometimes it is as basic as those fundamental social and emotional skills that most of us take for granted. A real incentive for the partner organisations we can engage is that it ticks the boxes of their agendas. For example, gaining training and employment decreases the likelihood that young people will get involved in crime. I often say, as no doubt do you, Mr Davies, that the best crime prevention measure is a good job. People in work are more likely to be healthier, less of a burden on the health service and to live longer and happier lives. Employment increases income, ensuring sustainability of rent payments and addressing housing issues. Work can bring structure and self-worth to life, improving mental health and helping to tackle some of the consequences of mental ill health, including drug and alcohol problems.


Rebalancing would ensure a good mix of provision that is suitable for local disadvantaged learners. We would work closely with our partners to do that. As I mentioned, we want to target directly the 1,250 unemployed young people in the area, as well as cutting off the supply of young people into that group. That is one of our key ambitions. If we are fortunate enough to succeed in our bid, from August 2015 and running for three years, we would target three trial wards within the Rebalancing area. In those wards, we would target those aged 19 to 24 who are long-term unemployed and have claimed out-of-work benefits for more than six months. The information—their names and addresses—sits with the Department for Work and Pensions and some form of interaction or agreement will therefore need to be in place, whereby the Department regularly updates information on the eligible beneficiaries within the proposal target area.


Briefly, on small businesses, Rebalancing had a meeting just a couple of weeks ago with the NBV, the Federation of Small Businesses, the east midlands chamber of commerce, Invest in Nottingham, RightTrack Social Enterprise and Business in the Community. We agreed on three specific things that we would like to take forward. The first is the development of a concise and clear marketing and communication plan for small and medium-sized enterprises, underpinned by a few key messages. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) has taken a particular interest in pursuing similar ideas. The second is the deployment of business buddies to engage and mentor small and medium-sized enterprises, understanding the support they need to grow and assisting them in providing that essential service. Having someone to turn to who has been there and done it is important if someone is starting up a single or double-handed business. The creation of a Nottingham North SME advocate agency—part of the problem about being in a big city is that a city-wide function might not reach the places it needs to reach most—that represented the interests of SMEs would give them the support they need and a voice in our city and nationally.


I want to put a few specific issues on the Minister’s radar, although I do not suppose he will have time to deal with all of them today. I have touched on some of them. My first key word is intensiveness. Just having the service there and saying, “We have got it. It ticks the box”, is not good enough. It helps if there is someone to whom those hard-to-reach people can turn or phone outside normal hours. We tried that with the early intervention project in Nottingham with teenage mums using the family-nurse partnerships. Every teenage mum in the programme has an experienced health visitor who they can turn to at any time. In a way, it is a little bit like that with hard-to-reach jobseekers. To reach them, it requires someone who can be personal and on the end of the phone whenever advice is needed. I put that on the Minister’s radar. Intensiveness as well as coverage is part of the answer.


Flexibility is another key word. I have talked a little about it. Sometimes, we meet the criteria set by the funding body, rather than the criteria needed by the individual. I fully appreciate that it is difficult to administer programmes that are tailor-made for each individual, but frankly it is essential when we are dealing with this sort of person. It is the only way it will work. Do not bother doing it unless there is the flexibility to say, “We can in certain circumstances bend what we are trying to do just to reach that person.” There are lots of great examples of how that has been done and how someone who everyone else said was a lost cause—they said they would be unemployed for their whole life, could not care less and had this problem and that problem—proves to be a big success story, because of that spark of flexibility and interaction with individuals.


Continuity is another key word. When we are dealing sometimes with families who have inter-generational unemployment, programmes have to be sustainable inter-generationally. Perseverance is needed. The programme needs to be there at all points, because the issues cannot be tackled in the short term. The words “quick” and “fix” do not sit together in the same sentence. Were that true, we would have dealt with the issues long ago.


My final key word is additionality. When we are trying to do something original, flexible and new, we need also to be innovative, interesting and trialling something. Sometimes, people who do that will fail. They need to be allowed to fail, because most of the time they will be finding better ways to do stuff. It must be additional, not an add-on to what we already have with the many very good people in the field already. The bulk of the bigger picture on employability will be looked at over the next couple of months.


We hope to benefit from European structural and investment funding, which is coming up shortly, and want to work up a proper bid with our local partners, the LEP, the council and others to produce a community-led local development programme to be delivered by the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation and local partners. We hope to agree that by March next year and to get action on the ground via the LEP following that bid no later than the second quarter of 2015-16.


In conclusion, I apologise for perhaps being a little long-winded, but it is necessary when trying to explain something new, innovative and, I hope, exciting. It represents a possible way forward in several different areas. I repeat that I am almost certain that several of the projects—across the whole range from public health to community building, which I have not talked about—that we are attempting to put together will fail, but to be allowed the chance to try to succeed without asking too much of the public purse and building on the good will of our private, voluntary and public sector partners, all of which have contributed without requesting any financial recompense, is a great start.


We hope that we can trial some things for the Minister and for the Government. Should there be a change of Government, whether we get another coalition or whatever else May might bring, that offer will remain. We have made a start in Nottingham North. We are not whingeing about the numbers or about where we sit in a league table. We are using the best offices of people in the locality, the best official advice and interaction with Government, and we intend to make a real difference. Ultimately, our ambition is to ensure that every young person leaves school work-ready and gets a job.