Local Government

Public ambition, private employment

  • Published: Jun 06, 2018
  • Author: Alan Sitkin
  • Category: Local Government

Part one - Local priorities for economic regeneration: an Enfield view

Alan Sitkin, Senior Lecturer, Regents University London

And there it is. You get elected councillor; your party forms the Council’s majority group; and colleagues vote you onto Cabinet. The Leader gives you the Regeneration brief and asks for your policies. So…where do you start?

Local politicians have faced similar questions since the dawn of local government. The answers have been a mixture of their personal worldviews and more objective assessments. It was no different when I served as London Borough of Enfield Cabinet Member for Economic Regeneration and Business between 2014 and 2018. The recent nature of that experience, however, means there may be value to NPI readers in analysing – and second-guessing – the economic governance of London’s 4th largest borough (2017 population ca. 320,000) over the past four years.  This exercise may be particularly useful given that Enfield - as an Outer London borough - features economic opportunities but also challenges similar to what citizens experience across much of the rest of the UK.

There is a tendency for local economic policy-makers to choose for key performance indicators those bureaucratic tools with which they are most comfortable, starting with vision statements and planning strategy. Without belittling such instruments (particularly planning, which makes for interesting blogging), I always thought they were just a means to an end, not an end itself.

The only goal I saw as being substantive (and ethical) enough to repay voters’ trust was the improvement of disadvantaged households’ economic well-being – did I say I was a Labour guy? Or at the very least, a Roosevelt Democrat. The only real question then became where to start. For me, the answer was obvious - given the deprivation blighting many neighbourhoods in our sadly de-industrialised borough, the Regeneration team’s KPI had to be more and better work for constituents.

To some extent, this meant accepting the received wisdom that work is the best way to increase social well-being[1]. Partisans of Amartya Sen’s more qualitative vision of economic success – said to include David Cameron, if you believe that[2] - may disagree. But a longstanding admiration for industrial European social democracies means I was always going to try and experiment with the idea that a state’s prime economic role is to remedy market failure– the most egregious of which, in Enfield’s case, being an employment rate that had long been lower than the London average. Hence the logic of asking the Council’s Regeneration team to prioritise work for our people.

A first challenge with this focus was that aside from the few local residents the Council hired directly (or whose employability we enhanced through a great apprenticeship scheme[3]), we had an at best indirect influence on the supply of work to Enfieldans. In 2017, Enfield Council employed about 2,900 people (down from more than 4,000 in 2010)[4]. Even if all lived in the borough – which of course they don’t – they would represent  fewer than 2% of the Enfield residents employed in 2017 (and 6% of the population employed in public administration, health or education)[5].

By giving ourselves targets determined by outside parties (largely private sector employers), we were always exposing ourselves to fate. One under-discussed by-product of the Tory government’s small state agenda has been a weakening of local authorities’ ability to address work through direct hiring. That is the reality local authorities live in nowadays.

On the other hand, we could and we did ask our business counterparts to operate within strictures designed to maximise the work benefits for the people of Enfield - and their Council. I was very proud to define ourselves as the fiercest negotiators imaginable on behalf of state interests[6] - an entire political paradigm that would also be fun to blog about.

The fact remains, however, that we were almost always asking other parties to achieve our work goals for us instead of being able to do it ourselves. This initial challenge came with the second one of ensuring that the work Enfieldans got was sufficiently remunerated to avoid the modern plague of in-work poverty – a major issue that NPI has addressed in depth[7]. Here too the problem was the indirect nature of our power to enact policy. The London Living Wage campaign was great and Enfield Council did implement it[8] but imposing it on the businesses who dominate the reality of wage-earning in our borough was a whole other thing. The fact that a weapon exists does not always mean it can be fully deployed….

The different tools used by the Regeneration team create questions about the nature and effectiveness of our work-related policy instruments. In addition to the problem of enforcing contractors’ wage policies, challenges included trying to get people to work in those sectors (construction but also adult social care) where there are job openings rather than others (like retail) that are shedding employment; and  the difficulty of tracking down certain long-term unemployed (“NEETS”) All these topics are worth exploring in greater detail. This will be done in the series’ next blog.       

[1] Richards, L. and Paskov, M., “Social class, employment status and inequality in psychological well-being in the UK…”, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 167, October 2016, Pages 45-53

[2] Stratton, A. “David Cameron wants to make happiness the new GDP”, Guardian, 14 November 2010,

[3] https://new.enfield.gov.uk/services/jobs-and-careers/working-with-us/apprenticeships-with-us/

[4] https://new.enfield.gov.uk/services/your-council/6 monthly Workforce data 0917-Your Council.pdf

[5] According to the Annual Population Survey, 152,000 Enfield residents were employed in 2017, of which 46,000 worked in public administration, health or education.

[6] Sitkin, A. “Tales from the frontline of regeneration”, Soundings, Number 52, Winter 2012, pp. 147-159

[7] https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/documents/272/LPP_2017_full_report.pdf

[8] http://www.enfield.gov.uk/news/article/881/enfield_council_gets_london_living_wage_accreditation

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