One year on, has Essex begun to be levelled up?
On International Women’s Day, it was fitting that one of the most inspiring contributions at a reception to mark a year of progress in our work to level up Essex, came from an ordinary woman who had made an extraordinary contribution to her community.
Angel Cogger, a single mother of four from Basildon, told her story to MPs, councillors, and a cross section of local businesses and organisations. It offered the real lived experience of the effect Levelling Up can have.
As a volunteer, then an activist and mentor for young people with a group called Achieve Thrive Flourish (ATF), Angel not only benefited from Levelling Up, but she is also helping to build its impact across Basildon. It’s been a life-changing experience.
Angel said: “ATF asked me to volunteer for a holiday club, and they realised I could dance and I love drama and they basically offered me a job. Fast forward a year, I now work in a school providing emotional help and support for children.”
It certainly felt like the Chancellor has been in listening mode, following the announcements on childcare he made in this week’s budget. One of the biggest barriers to work is the cost of childcare, and I made that point at the reception. We actually want the Government to go further – using schools not just for wrap around care but helping us fulfil their full potential as centres to support communities from.
As our host the Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP said, “Levelling Up is a ladder.” I couldn’t put it any more succinctly or better. Our mission is to make sure people in Essex have the opportunity to succeed in life and fulfil their potential.
Whether it is empowering women like Angel to make a difference in their communities, or ensuring that those same communities can get the education and skills they need to thrive, reducing health inequalities or helping people get on the property ladder, in Essex, the agenda is having an impact.
It certainly felt like the Chancellor has been in listening mode, following the announcements on childcare he made in this week’s budget.
In Rob Halfon’s constituency of Harlow, this is already evident – last week, we officially opened a new training centre at Harlow College where students learn how to service and maintain electric vehicles – not only offering a great career path but also contributing to Essex’s net zero ambitions. We had already launched Harlow Futures, a collaboration between schools, colleges and employers, aiming to channel young people into the industries contributing to Harlow’s growth by equipping them with the right skills.
What’s unpinning all of our Levelling Up work is data. Across Essex we’ve targeted places – Clacton, Jaywick, Harwich, Canvey Island, Colchester’s and Basildon’s estates, Harlow, rural parts of Braintree – and identified the people and the type of support they need, for instance, low income working families, young adults who haven’t been in education, employment or training for 6-12 months, children and adults with send, learning disabilities or mental health conditions, and children on free school meals.
Our actions are certainly having an effect in the short term but are designed to deliver long-term benefits – in some cases, this is two sides of the same coin.
Just before Christmas, I went along to see our first community supermarket in action in Laindon. They are a great example of partnership working and the concept is simple – Community Supermarkets fill the gap between foodbanks and commercial supermarkets. They are not charities – you pay – but at very, very affordable prices, with stocks of core food and household items that many foodbanks don’t stock.
Our second community supermarket opened in Jaywick in January, and there are plans now for every district in Essex to have one. What do the customers think of them? Here’s what George from Jaywick told us: “Coming and shopping here means I can afford to put the heating on.”
What all this activity means – click to read or watch – is that Levelling Up is no longer just a buzzword, or a concept. It is real change in action. We’ve blazed a trail, as described by Justine Greening, former Education Secretary and the Chair of the This is Purpose Coalition who made a huge contribution to our Levelling Up priorities.
Justine also said our work was an invaluable source of insight for Whitehall, as well as the wider local government community. That’s important – this work is a partnership between central and local government. The Budget contained great news for residents in Dovercourt, on the Essex coast, for instance, with £6.7m from the Government’s Levelling Up fund to transform its town centre.
But a further opportunity, and an even bigger potential prize for our County, lies in the rebalancing to the relationship between central and local.
The Levelling Up Bill and the recent Budget opens the door for devolution deals in places like Essex (which in our case, would include Southend on Sea City Council and Thurrock Council) which would enable us to deliver so much more than we are already doing, creating more impact, and extending the ladder of opportunity to even more places and people.
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