Tough Challenge

A recent newspaper report related another setback to attempts to upskill people on Merseyside. Any barrier to improving job chances for our people is to be deplored, and must be removed at the earliest opportunity. What struck me, however, was how this problem arose, according to the report, and the parties involved.

A dispute between the “skills provider“ and the contract commissioners centred – as usual – on who paid what. Yet the reality was that the £5.5 million contract was ultimately down to public funding. Learndirect were the providers. Contracting them was the wholly-unelected Liverpool City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, spending money from the European Social Fund, together with some funds from central government.

A later newspaper report said that central government had, in fact, cancelled all funding to Learndirect throughout the country. It had been revealed that this so-called training company spent 84% of its income (£631 million from government since 2011) on payments to managers and financiers! I immediately thought of the task facing our elected metromayor.

Steve Rotheram has a background in skills training; it is one of his official priorities. However, he can do little about training provision when the dedicated funding is disbursed by an unelected quango, and where the training provider selected by them is actually exploiting the unemployed. He must find himself in an impossible situation.

This unfair demand on the metromayor is paralleled in another area said to be within his responsibilities – that is, transport. As he faces the long-running dispute between Merseyrail and the RMT union, he knows that the Combined Authority, when it was led by Joe Anderson, had ordered new, one-man trains, long before a metromayor was elected. That certainly left the incoming metromayor between a rock and a hard place in trying to help to resolve the dispute.

Steve may carry overall responsibility for transport, but this – like the training agenda – is a hard row to hoe. Just consider the public reaction to tolls on the new Mersey Gateway bridge. Not only will that long-awaited crossing be tolled, but the existing Widnes-Runcorn bridge is also to be tolled. This is after fifty seven years without a toll regime. We have tried for years to secure an end to the charges on the two existing Mersey tunnels. Other parts of the country seem to get a better deal on tunnels and bridges – just look at Wales – but I fear the metromayor’s hands are as tied on transport as they appear to be on training.

In my view, the government has failed to give our metromayor what he needs. My fear, given the expectations that so many have, is that metromayors become whipping boys for national government’s areas of failure in transport and training. Unless our metromayor is assured of the funding, the authority and the autonomy to address these matters, he could be on a hiding to nothing. He needs to be able to act decisively if he is to succeed, but he cannot unless the right tools are put at his disposal.

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