Philanthropist calls for a new deal for young people in the West Midlands

Steve Rigby, Rigby Group

Steve Rigby, of Rigby Group and the Rigby Foundation, discusses the importance of a new deal for young people in the West Midlands

Evidence of poverty and regional inequality can be seen right across the UK yet if we are to succeed as a nation and give hope back to our young people the widening divide between the haves and the have nots must be bridged.

The general election should be an opportunity to achieve something better. With many communities, such as our own, grappling with high poverty rates and limited opportunities for the next generation, it is time to explore how greater regional devolution and improved efficiency in public services might combat these challenges. We need a transformative approach that leverages local strengths, empowers communities, and sets a course for sustainable prosperity.

“Two Nations – the state of poverty in the UK”, an independent report published by the Centre for Social Justice earlier this year, revealed a deeply divided country mired by deprivation and regional inequality, and its hard hitting findings prompted me to reflect on the West Midlands where I grew up and where my family business was built.

What was particularly stark about the report was the gulf separating the views of the most deprived from the public at large. Whilst the general public positively rated all aspects of life except gambling, drug addiction, mental healthcare and housing, the most deprived negatively rated all but public transport and public services. Critically, the most deprived negatively rated their feeling of community, fear of crime, addictions, employment opportunities, adult education and immigration.

Yet, however grave this situation undoubtedly is, the answer cannot be to simply keep spending more money on public services. We live in a high tax state, with taxes scaling towards 38% of GDP and, more importantly, government spending at 44% of GDP. Also, the challenges are too complex to be solved by money alone. The answers lie in improving inefficiencies and delivering further devolution of powers to the regions.

The UK government is one of the most centralised in Europe. Whilst the regional mayoral system has been in place since 2017, with nine Metro Mayors, the reality is that their financial powers remain relatively limited.

With all this in mind, my family’s charitable foundation, The Rigby Foundation recently worked with the Centre for Social Justice to understand the specific challenges facing young people in the West Midlands and crucially interventions that could be deployed to support them. The CSJ’s sobering findings can be found in their latest report: “A New Deal for Young People in the West Midlands”.

The West Midlands’ poverty rate is 23%, substantially higher than the national average. We have higher rates of adults working in lower paid jobs and higher rates of economic inactivity and employment in working age adults. Only 4% of young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in our region progress to the best universities compared with 12% nationally. We shamefully have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the country at 38%, with areas such as Birmingham, Sandwell, Stoke on Trent, Walsall and Wolverhampton all making the top 30 most deprived local authorities.

Ambition in our young people must be matched with an environment that allows for them to prosper locally. The CSJ’s latest report outlines a series of practical recommendations for the Department of Education, for the Combined Authority, for schools and colleges and for businesses and charities.

We need to consider integrated social services, working together with the charitable sector to remove any duplication and inefficiency from the system. Combining and coordinating multiple delivery systems and reducing disciplinary boundaries in areas such as housing, nutrition, disability, physical and mental health, child welfare, transportation and workforce services is almost impossible on a national scale. You would be trying to boil the ocean. On a regional scale, the chance of success is much higher.

Operating a vertically integrated system of support for our most deprived, vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens with lead resources assigned to families and communities, under the control of the combined authorities feels more achievable.

By combining services, we can improve collaboration, reduce inefficiencies and allow for resource sharing. The centralised and pillared approach we have today simply isn’t working. Not only do individuals fall through the cracks, but our regions lack the control they need to support and make their communities prosper.

Greater devolution is key. Now is the time to start to pilot new ways of working. We have a new Labour Mayor with Richard Parker in the West Midlands, and whilst much was achieved under the previous incumbent, if polling is correct, the next government will be under Labour. Our new Mayor has the ability not just to change the game but to change the rules.

Philanthropic organisations like my own, The Rigby Foundation, set up by my father, Sir Peter Rigby, have a long track record of working hard to make a positive difference in the region and we are ready to engage and do more. However, we need long-term, joined-up thinking. Critically the region needs resources and freedom. The national cookie jar is empty, but this isn’t about new resources but about making better use of existing funding that the local authorities, with direction from the combined authority can deploy in meaningful integrated change initiatives.

The challenges faced by the West Midlands are significant, but so are the opportunities for transformation. The potential exists to really drive change and the new Mayor’s focus on youth unemployment is a great starting point. Let’s enable our region to solve its own problems, give them the resources needed to achieve our potential and change the course of our young people’s destiny.

By focusing on devolution, improving efficiencies, and fostering collaboration between the private, public and charitable sectors, I believe we can create an environment where our young people can thrive and the region can reach its full potential as a vibrant and prosperous community.

Read the CSJ’s report: “A New Deal for Young People in the West Midlands”.