Levelling Up with skills

Skills and training have been a problem in construction for decades. Many attempts have been made over the years to address this, but with only some limited success. As we come out of COVID and into a period where the Government is seeking to stimulate the economy through investment in construction, skills and training are again an issue. Ambitions such as building 300,000 new homes per year on top of some impressive infrastructure investments such as HS2, the Lower Thames Crossing, and two, possibly three, new nuclear power stations, will all require significant new skills. This on top of the new skills requirements for sustainable construction and retrofitting. These were the main topics discussed at the Skills Summit, held at Harlow College in the autumn, which we organised on behalf of Willmott Dixon.

Apart from targets in housebuilding and infrastructure construction, the Government also has a significant levelling up agenda. The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, now the education minister for skills and apprenticeships, gave the keynote speech and talked about the “ladder of opportunity” and how skills and training are one of the biggest tools to enable younger generations to rise up the ladder and achieve more in their careers: levelling up opportunity.

The Summit heard from John Heylett, a young man who is a living example of what providing opportunity can achieve. It set the scene for the Summit: this is what we must aim to achieve. He came from the most deprived area in Essex, Jaywick near Clacton, and through pursuing the opportunities made available to him is now a building surveyor at Atkins. John spoke about his career to date and the doors that have been opened for him.

But how is the skills and training agenda to be delivered? This is where government, both national and local, comes into its own: the key sources of funding for skills and training comes from social value, and that originates from public procurement and planning.
Speakers from three councils explained how they approach the challenge: Westminster City Council, Essex County Council and Brentwood Borough Council.

Natalie Evans, the responsible procurement manager at Westminster City Council, has considerable experience in this field of delivering social value. She oversaw the implementation of the City of London Responsible Procurement Strategy in 2016 and then Westminster City Council’s Responsible Procurement and Commissioning Strategy in 2021. Natalie relayed her experience at both councils, the challenges she encountered, the objectives and the results achieved. Both included social value (employability and apprenticeships, social mobility and inclusion, local environment and economy), environmental sustainability (climate change mitigation and resilience, low environmental impact materials, methods and equipment) and ethical sourcing (human and labour rights, combatting modern slavery).

County councils have strategic responsibility for skills and education across their counties. Ruth Gilbert, the new head of employability and skills at Essex County Council, explained its approach through Everyone’s Essex. This core strategy ensures social value invests in Lifelong Learning with a focus on employability, productivity gains and economic growth, and key public sector shortages.

Whereas Rob Halfon talks about a ladder of opportunity, Essex talks about an ‘escalator of opportunity’. The council has a skills plan which has four levels: barriers to work, in education, job ready and in work.

Cllr Chris Hossack is the leader of Brentwood Borough Council, which has recently reviewed its procurement strategy and has become the first council in Essex to have a separate Social Value Strategy. He explained that the motivation to do these reviews was the same as all other councils: it is an obligation under the 2012 Social Value Act. “We conducted an internal analysis of where we could best leverage SV contributions, we integrated adherence to the Social Value Act into our overall Procurement Strategy, and then published the Strategy and the Social Value Policy”.

Where this has achieved results includes with Axis, which has the council housing R&M contract. Amongst other things, the focus is upon local suppliers, local employment and upskilling. With Everyone Active, which has the leisure contract, again, local suppliers are the focus. With a recent building contract for the £7m pavilion upgrade at King George’s Park, a local contractor was selected with a local workforce, using local suppliers, and with a local apprentice and training commitment. It also supported community events and had a commitment to low carbon working practices.

The summit was chaired by Richard Davidson, a director of Willmott Dixon and also a governor of Chelmsford College. He summarised all the speakers presentations and encouraged councils to look at social value both in procurement and planning, and how this can facilitate more investment in skills and training.

Social value has been around for a decade but councils have only recently been beginning to pay attention to it. Social value is the way by which the communities receive benefits back, whether that be through procurement or planning gain.

The main beneficiary of social value is skills and training which fits well with the Government’s current levelling up agenda – although much is said about the north-south divide, levelling up also means levelling up of opportunity, targeting the most deprived areas of the country.

All councils can make their contribution by reviewing procurement strategies and planning policies to ensure there is social value included.