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Paul Miller: Applause for 'inspiring' discussion on future of Ashbourne's job prospects

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: July 18, 2014

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Paul Miller talks about the Ashbourne neighbourhood plan meeting on Wednesday night, which looked at housing and employment.

THERE was a standing-room-only turnout in the town hall on Wednesday, to hear Jeffrey Phillips kick off the feedback on the findings of the public consultation and discuss how this would be turned into policy.

Although the expectation was that the first of two neighbourhood plan public meetings would focus on housing, my attention was caught by the discussion about employment.

Councillor Lucy Green introduced the topic and her pragmatic approach to researching the question was very insightful.

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Employment is one of those things that could easily be ascribed just to the economy - when Britain does well, there are more jobs and, when there is a recession, there will be unemployment.

In effect, there is nothing we can do at a local level to influence it.

Councillor Green took a different tack - she spoke to employers and potential employees - recognising that employment, like everything else, can be influenced by local policy.

She started by outlining the shocking results from her survey of Queen Eliazbeth Grammar School pupils.

Students were asked for their views of Ashbourne and local employment. A reasonable sample size was returned which gave some interesting insights.

The majority of students have Saturday jobs or complete their work placement locally. In other words, they want to work (pat on the back to all the Ashbourne parents).

Their aspirations about work are also unsurprising - they want to be engineers, teachers, armed service personnel, self-employed or work with software.

The shock comes in that only around 10% think there is a job available for them in Ashbourne and/or expect to find a job here. They are not aware of what local employers have to offer and assume there is nothing suitable.

She then analysed the employment market locally.

In Ashbourne, the biggest employment area, coincidentally the largest employment area in Derbyshire Dales, is the Airfield.

There are some very recognisable companies but also a significant number of smaller innovative businesses hiding their lights under bushels.

They are successful and their immediate growth plans anticipate needing far more land than the nine hectares currently identified by Derbyshire Dales.

If they don't get the land to expand, they will have to expand elsewhere. The shocking truth is that no-one spoke to employers before the Draft Local Plan was written, just as no-one has analysed the types of housing we need or what young people want.

The other key message from the Airfield is that there are jobs available but the vast majority will tend to be manual production or warehouse jobs, which will be lower paid.

The other employment areas in the town are the offices around Waterside Park (which tend to be clerical activities) and then retail and tourism - notoriously low paid and seasonal work.

On the face of it, unless something changes - and provided we can meet employers' needs - Ashbourne has low-paid, seasonal or part-time jobs aplenty but a generation of employees who don't want them.

Of course, there are implications all around this.

If we have 800 new houses in Ashbourne, where are the people who buy them going to work? Why aren't QEGS and local employers making the young people of Ashbourne aware of the opportunities here?

Is the reason our young people want to leave Ashbourne lack of knowledge of opportunity or something else? Why are we building houses for people with higher incomes that local employees can't afford?

These questions formed the basis for the lively discussion over the next half an hour or so.

Communication seems key to the debate. There is a lack of co-ordination between employer and employee.

The way QEGS prepares students is one element in this. Of course, there is a natural desire among young people to spread their wings and see a bit more of the country or the world but there must be something wrong when they can't even countenance a life in their home town.

There are things which could be done, such as more involvement with local employers, further training courses in specialist areas to bridge the journey to work such as construction, plumbing and electrical trades and tourism.

The current push seems to be university for everyone rather than consideration of employment prospects and personal circumstances. Don't get me wrong, this is a national as well as a local problem.

On the employer side, we need to look at attracting the right kind of new employers to Ashbourne - adding sexier engineering and technology to the mix.

We also need to support and encourage current employers by giving them the opportunities to expand in the way they need.

And we also need to ensure the jobs being created are targeted at students at all levels of ability with learning opportunities, are easily available to local people and offer permanent, full-time employment wherever possible.

Finally, we need to somehow bridge the gap from education to work for the budding entrepreneurs we are producing.

If we are struggling to attract the new sexy employers, perhaps we can grow some sexy businesses of our own.

Attracting employers is difficult in a competitive market. They want financial benefits such as grants and they need to know the employees with the right skills are readily available.

It is bound to be a long-term project. They also need someone to talk to about their requirements.

Recent development proposals for the Airfield have spoken about an "enterprise centre" - somewhere that could bring employees and employers together in a structured way and which could be a focal point for any grants or other financial assistance available for job creation.

It could even be a training centre for some vocational qualifications overseen by QEGS and offsite interviewing - let's face it, they are shortly going to need a lot more space!

Importantly, it would be located conveniently close to the employment centre.

I've not heard this quality of conversation about issues that are at the heart of our community before.

Sure, there are small pockets of the same old faces and you would expect our town council to have it on the agenda.

Having a whole room not only discussing and challenging but, crucially, offering solutions as well was inspiring.

Our farmers know that their job is about far more than just growing the crops for this season. They invest long term in the plant and machinery, use financial incentives which are available and look after the rural countryside we enjoy.

Only they have the detailed local insight about drainage, diversity and wildlife to make the right decisions.

Of course, there will be hard times when money is a little tighter and plans need to be out on hold but, when the tide turns, they are back looking at new technology, nutrients and methods which will improve yield in the long term - so that the next generation has something worth having.

The neighbourhood plan is a template for us "urban farmers" and its value has never been demonstrated so clearly. There was applause for all the speakers and rightly so.

Those who missed out this time around need to make sure they join the audience at the next session on August 6.

The topics then will be traffic and identity. It will encourage the debate needed to form the final policy.

Hopefully we will see attendance from QEGS, the primary schools and Derbyshire Dales on this occasion.

Maybe we can hear first hand how nine new classrooms are going to be funded, where the millions of Section 106 money is and why the parking is so expensive!

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