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A central challenge for local skills strategies is whether they can contribute to ‘inclusive growth’ including more and better jobs across a local economy. Skills strategies, it has been argued, must go beyond simply boosting skills supply and be integrated with policies that shape employer demand for, and utilisation of, skills, including economic development and business improvement. Among developed countries, this is particularly challenging for neo-liberal economies, with weakly regulated labour markets where many firms compete through low wages and low-skill job design. How much progress can be made locally is unclear. The article focuses on England, a highly centralised neo-liberal economy, with high levels of low-wage work and over-qualification. Since 2010, UK governments have promised to empower local communities to drive growth, reforming the infrastructure for sub-national economic development and localising elements of skills policy, as part of a devolution agenda for England set in the context of austerity. There are important questions around how local actors understand the ‘skills problem’ and whether they can evolve integrative approaches that might contribute to inclusive growth. Drawing upon qualitative research with local actors in the Midlands, the article explores their assumptive worlds in order to shed light on opportunities and constraints.