Handing over control of skills funding would give the Government an easy economic victory, campaigners have said.
Across the region, council leaders and business chiefs are pushing for a greater say over how tens of millions of pounds a year in workforce training money is spent.
And that battle for control is now backed by every newspaper in the North East, uniting in the NEvolution campaign.
In a first, the papers have united behind calls for a raft of measures to be handed over to the region’s councils and businesses rather than see decisions made in secret at Whitehall.
A combined lobbying effort is seeking to ensure Chancellor George Osborne uses his upcoming spending review to not just set out a new round of cuts, but agree to give the region a say over how billions of pounds in Government spending is allocated.
Mr Osborne is urged to back calls by former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine to hand over devolved funding and decision-making powers in areas such as transport, backing local economic growth and skills training.
The call for skills funding is one backed by the Local Enterprise Partnership, a Government-backed group of councils and business leaders.
There, chief executive Edward Twiddy, a former Treasury civil servant, is leading on negotiations which could radically change on how skills cash is handed out.
Devolution talks with Government are focused around whether ministers simply hand over a slice of the funding or if they allow the partnership to order changes in the training on offer, co-commissioning payments to those colleges which offer courses better suited to the needs of local firms. Such a move would radically alter the relative worth of some adult education training courses available in the region’s colleges.
“These devolution options would give us significant leverage,” Mr Twiddy said. “We could do much more if we had more than just a nominal role in this.”
His work lobbying ministers takes place as North Tyneside MP Mary Glindon made a more public plea for backing.
The Labour MP raised the NEvolution campaigning with communities minister Brandon Lewis in the House of Commons yesterday.
She secured from him a pledge to continuing working with the region to localise powers.
The united call follows on from work earlier this year by think tank IPPR North calling for a new era of regional skills control. Director Ed Cox said: “A localised approach to skills would help boost economic performance in the North and bring enormous benefits to the UK as a whole.
“Local Enterprise Partnerships need to play a key role in linking up skills, employment and growth in their local area, and be given more responsibility over budgets.”
The think tank pointed out that the region has a higher percentage of its adult population with no qualifications than the English average.
There are over three million people of working age in the North – including Yorkshire and the North West – with no qualifications.
The North East alone has 441,170 people with no qualifications.
If the North got that down to the English average, this figure would be reduced by 360,000, the think tank said.
IPPR North’s report argued that the budget for adult further education, skills and apprenticeships, which currently stands at £3.8bn, should be shared out across the country.
Page 2 - How lessons from Yorkshire could pay off in North East >>
How lessons from Yorkshire could pay off in North East
ADRIAN PEARSON on plans the North East has for skills funding
THE North East already has ambitious skills plans. A recent review of the region’s economy placed greater control over skills funding at the centre of the battle to improve the area.
Lord Adonis’s review included a target for the region’s councils and businesses on the local enterprise partnership to work together to improve the effectiveness of skills investment, with doubling advanced level youth apprenticeships over the next three years, as an urgent priority.
Leaders will also have to set out how European jobs cash can be better spent providing better training for the region’s workforces.
But the most important part of his recommendation to Government will see ministers asked to devolve skills funding, based on the Sheffield Model, to Skills North East, in return for a big increase in the quantity and quality of youth apprenticeships.
In Sheffield ministers handed over a multi-million pound skills budget as part of the council’s city deal. The politicians, however, handed this to businesses, letting employers have a direct say over skills training.
Lord Adonis said, and council leaders have agreed, that a Skills North East model could repeat this success.
In order to encourage Government to let go of central control, seven North East councils will form a combined authority, with the leaders taking on the task of doubling the number of Youth Apprenticeships over the next four years, from 6,500 to 13,000, with an initial emphasis doubling of Level 3 from 2,000 to 4,000 in engineering and other skills linked to key growth sectors.
Those councils have also been asked to back a Skills North East, working with universities to establish four University Technical Colleges, helping to increase participation rates by some 300 places per annum (1%) until the North East matches the national average, and expanding intern programmes for graduates and post graduates.