‘We are plagued with low wage levels, high unemployment’ - Derry & Strabane Colrs

The figures for unemployment, especially amongst the youth of the Derry City and Strabane Council area as detailed in a new action plan makes for shocking reading.

By Gillian Anderson
Tuesday, 27th July 2021, 4:51 pm
The city and district has higher rates of unemployment than the NI and UK averages.
The city and district has higher rates of unemployment than the NI and UK averages.

Members of the council’s  Business and Culture Committee were presented with the figures in a report on the Labour Market Partnership Action Plan which they unanimously approved for submission to the Department for Communities.

The council area has the lowest employment rate in the United Kingdom with the steepest decline in employment with 16-24 year olds.

Youth employment in Northern Ireland has declined from 56.4% to 43.2%. This 13.2% fall is the largest recorded in all UK regions.

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At 30.4%, Derry City and district also has a significantly higher percentage of economically inactive than both the UK and Northern Ireland averages.

High levels of social deprivation and educational underachievement continue to plague the Derry City and Strabane District Council (DCSDC) area with 21% of the population (30,925) living in areas defined as deprived.

When it comes to lifelong learning 17.6% of those aged 16 to 64 in the Derry City and Strabane Council area have no formal qualifications, the fourth lowest of NI Council areas.

Current employment trends show higher employment levels for those educated to degree and above and a fall in lower level occupational areas which will further intensify the situation if not rectified.

The report also stated that across a range of socio economic indicators the Derry Strabane City-Region underperforms compared to 341 local authorities throughout the rest of the UK.

Kevin O’Connor, Council’s Head of Business said: “Members had previously been updated on the establishment of the Interim Labour Market Partnership (LMP), under the banner of DfC’s new Employability NI framework.

“The aim of the Interim LMP is to improve employability outcomes and labour market conditions locally by working through co-ordinated, collaborative, multi agency partnerships engaged in the provision of employability services to codesign and co-commission local employability interventions.

“Essentially a more localised delivery mechanism that will enable us to target resources on specific groups, including those with particular access issues and barriers which currently prevent them from accessing training and employment opportunities.”

Committee Chair, Sinn Féin Councillor Conor Heaney welcomed the new partnership between the council and the Department for Communities to help improve employability outcomes.

“I have always said if this City Deal process leaves behind people from our most disadvantaged communities then the whole process will have failed,” he said. “We can’t be creating a large amount of jobs through this process and then the people who need them most in this city can’t access them, so this is a welcome development.

“The fact that there will be new skills academies, intervention for young people who have been disproportionately affected by Covid, flexible models with community based training – all that is very positive.”

SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell agreed a more localised approach was required, however, he questioned how the funding allocated stacked up against what other councils would receive.

He commented: “The issues facing this council area are well known and well documented.

“Unfortunately we are plagued with high unemployment, high economic inactivity and low wage levels and that leads to poverty and deprivation which in turn leads to poor health outcomes and poor educational outcomes which further impacts employment and employability.

“It’s a vicious cycle which needs to be broken once and for all and improving skills is one element to reversing that trend.

“It’s not a silver bullet. If we fix the skills issue our problems won’t be solved overnight but we need to build for the future.

“There’s no point in making people more employable if there’s no job vacancies to fill and that’s why we need to see definitive action from the Economy Minister and we need to see a specific plan from the new Minister Gordon Lyons, and we need to see strict targets from Invest NI in terms of foreign and direct investment and job creation.”

The report noted that ‘Initial indications suggest that DfC (Department for Communities) and DfE (Department for Economy) will provide a financial contribution of approximately £777,863.47, including 20% for administration and staffing per annum to DCSDC to carry out the agreed actions/activities, as set out in the Action Plan.’

Colr Farrel asked: “In terms of the funding – that works out at about £4 per head per population for this council area per annum, how does that compare to the existing programmes that this partnership replaces and how does it compare to other council areas throughout the north?”

Mr O’Connor responded: “In terms of how the money has been allocated there is a formula and it’s around deprivation and that type of thing. I don’t have the figures for the other councils but I can get that information for you.”

Colr Farrell added: “We are at the wrong end of all the league tables so we should get a higher spend per capita and that’s my view.”

PBP Councillor Shaun Harkin agreed that partnership and collaboration is crucial to address the City and District’s issues, however, he also called for the trade unions to be involved in discussions.

“There’s never too much emphasis on the problems we face here,” said Colr Harkin. “We have the lowest employment rates in the UK and we now have very disappointing youth employment rates which is very worrying and alarming.

“Action on addressing employment in our City and district is absolutely urgent and needed. 

“We’ve had discussions in our council about the City Deal and the overarching economic strategy coming out of Stormont and this is not the first time there has been attempts at a partnership with Stormont to address employment and deprivation issues here.

“Unfortunately, it has been a legacy for absolute failure because there have been many other employment schemes and improve skills schemes and they haven’t delivered, they haven’t put a dent in the economic inactivity statistics and they haven’t raised the living standards significantly for the vast majority living across our district.

“Can we include conversations with the trade unions about these plans and I think that will benefit the plans because they have an insight into things.”

DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney supported the recommendation adding: “We have to welcome anything that comes forward with a positive end to dealing with unemployment and anything that creates employment across the council area has to be welcomed.

“I think it is vitally important that we have the right education courses for our young people coming through the education services at the moment.

“It’s vitally important that we are training them up and giving them the best advice on jobs that will be coming or may be available for them when they get through their education. It’s also vitally important that there is skilled based training as well.”

The recommendation to approve the Action Plan for submission to the Department for Communities was passed unanimously.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter