Five problems with the WECA growth strategy

With his election in May overshadowed by the General Election, you’d be forgiven for having missed what the West of England’s Conservative metro-mayor has been up to. Now’s the time to pay attention, as the West of England growth strategy has been published by the Combined Authority (WECA), and local people can comment until 27 September.

We’ve read the West of England growth strategy, and, well, it could do with some work. Here are five problems with the strategy at the moment. Keep an eye out for UNISON’s five fixes to improve the plan!

  1. We can’t assume the West of England is onto a winner

Life in Bristol, B&NES and South Gloucestershire is good for many. As WECA’s strategy identifies many highly-skilled people want to live here. But it slips into complacency about the prospects for growth that benefits everyone.

Behind the headlines, many people are struggling to make ends meet. Productivity is slipping, and the region’s infrastructure is creaking. Our success stories, for example in advanced manufacturing, employ relatively small numbers of people.

Despite this, the West of England growth strategy pins its hopes on tweaks to the current economic model. It’s a fundamentally light-touch approach. This is not enough. The current economic model has costs like air pollution, inequality, and congestion. The strategy should look at how we beat these constraints, not pretend they don’t exist.

2. The strategy ignores the jobs that most people actually do

Robots are exciting. So is bioscience. Financial services sounds clever. But shiny sectors like these are not directly employing many West of England people. They’re also footloose, ready to relocate if the grass is greener somewhere else. And they have less of a low pay problem thanks to their highly skilled nature.

Our politicians should support the success of these industries. Unfortunately, WECA’s strategy is star struck by them, at the expense of permanent, relatively low-tech jobs that most people do. To create inclusive growth, WECA needs a laser-focus on improving low-pay sectors. Jobs like care, retail, construction, and basic utilities might not sound exciting, but unless we improve skills, pay and progression in these areas, social mobility and inequality will get worse.

3. Skills have to work for employees, as well as businesses

Linking skills to employer demand are a welcome aspiration in the West of England growth strategy. Despite four universities, our schools and colleges are not as good as they could be at giving our young people the skills employers need.

At least as important is lifelong learning so workers can keep updating their skills. WECA’s strategy doesn’t say enough about pushing businesses to invest in their workforces like European counterparts do. There’s no mention of enabling people to access skills they need to get on, rather than only those immediately relevant to their jobs. If we want skills to be a way into better jobs then this must change. Finally the strategy puts the responsibility on individuals to find training packages. Instead it ought to talk up agreements with trade unions to get skills delivered en masse, linked to large public and private projects.

4. Cuts have brought public services to breaking point, but you wouldn’t know it from this document

Bristol Council has to reduce spending by upwards of £100m by 2022 and has lost a third of its workforce since 2010. South Gloucestershire’s grant is falling from £72m to £16m. B&NES is cutting over one fifth of its already reduced spending by 2020.

WECA needs to be the number one advocate for public investment, as well as private wealth. Unfortunately the strategy is silent on public capacity to deliver the transformational projects the West of England needs. The metro mayor can’t supply more funding alone, but he needs to understand that without it, the West of England’s social and economic problems will increase.

5. There’s an elephant in the room: Brexit

Great fanfare is given to the West of England’s international connections. We should celebrate our overseas bonds, but we must recognise the vulnerability this creates during Britain’s exit from the EU. It might be that a deal is struck enabling overseas connections to go from strength to strength. But even the softest Brexit will mean big changes. Investors, planners and employees can’t know what the outcome will be, which means decisions will be delayed or other areas prioritised.

In the meantime, WECA needs to prepare for this risk. For example, by looking at resilient sectors of the economy and thickening our local trading and investment links.

So what does a good strategy look like?

You have to start with an analysis of what’s wrong before proposing solutions, but UNISON is working on those too. Watch out for a follow up piece soon. Until then, you can get a preview by reading UNISON’s formal response to WECA’s strategy.

For more information on UNISON’s work in WECA, email