To LEP or not to LEP, that is the question?
Local Enterprise Partnerships have come in for quite a lot of stick since their formation in 2011. From initial criticism from Sir Digby Jones that they were confused in their objectives, too small to work properly and already had a “local authority mentality”, to the grumbling I’ve heard around a few boardroom tables in recent weeks that they are ‘talking shops’ and slow to deliver.
In boardrooms at least there is a great deal of sympathy, as it is largely understood that LEPs have had no real power or funding since they were created to fill the void left by the disbanding of the Regional Development Agencies.
Another reason for LEPs not being viewed entirely positively is a lack of knowledge of what it is they are expected to deliver and how far their powers extend. In many areas they have been created to fill not only the void left by the RDAs, but any other given voids between local authorities, and inward investment and regeneration vehicles. And that means that they are all operating in subtly different ways in each region.
And here is the additional communications challenge that LEPs need to address if they want to succeed. The RDAs they replaced became a victim to politics as, whilst they were understood by the business community, the need for them was never successfully communicated to the wider electorate. This gap made them an easy target in the run up to the 2010 election as, despite the good work they were delivering, they were too easy to paint as unelected quangos. So LEPs need to find a way of not only convincing the doubters in the boardroom, but also talking to the man in the street if they are to avoid the same fate.
Well, come July this year they will get the chance to address some of these issues, when the Government announces what share of the £2bn national Single Local Growth Fund each LEP will be awarded, to fund their plans for the 12 months from April 2015. Amongst all the talk of ‘delivery’, ‘growth acceleration’, ‘game-changing proposals’, ‘partnerships’ and ‘grand ambitions’, this will be the first time that many LEPs have had a real budget to deliver with.
Not only will this give LEPs some financial clout and control, but in submitting their Strategic Economic Plans (SEPs) and Local Growth Deals, they have essentially outlined their remit, strategic direction and the metrics by which we can measure their success.
It is from here on in that we can start to assess their effectiveness as delivery bodies.
So what have LEPs been doing since they replaced the RDAs in 2012?
Alongside the research, investigation and planning in order to deliver the SEPs, they’ve been tackling perhaps the biggest barrier to their potential future success: how do you get towns and cities, which have historically treated each other with a mix of suspicion and in some cases outright hostility, to work together?
Well it’s clearly an ongoing struggle in some areas, as the recent naming debacle of the combined authority in Merseyside demonstrated. After failing to reach an agreement amongst themselves, Eric Pickles landed it with the snappy Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral Combined Authority. Thankfully that has been ditched in favour of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.
Manchester is often lauded as the region that has managed to get its act together in terms of cooperation and delivery, with the outlying areas understanding the ability the Manchester ‘brand’ has to attract investment and the halo affect they can benefit from. It’s no accident that Media City went to Salford.
Elsewhere it is all too often seen as one place attracting the prime investment opportunities, whilst everyone else has to exist on scraps from their table.
Looking at the Leeds region, this has been the view in recent years and the naming of the ‘Leeds City Region’ did little to dispel that fear.
What has happened since, however, has been a growing acceptance of the need for the key destinations of Leeds, Bradford, York, Wakefield, Huddersfield and others, to come together to ensure they all get what they need. And if that is under the attack brand of Leeds, so be it.
Whilst each place has got on with making its own plans and answering its own needs, there has been a very noticeable change in the way they talk about one another and work together when it comes to promoting the city region and in delivering the SEP.
Having worked across the region for many years and seen this sort of cooperation be no more than skin deep, this feels significantly different. Perhaps with one eye over the Pennines, it’s the realisation that the shrinking pot of central funding is more likely to be awarded to partners with a track record of delivery.
But perhaps it’s the effect of the LEP and the development of an organisation that will be better equipped to deal with local requirements with further devolution of power and funding. The argument went, and still holds, that who is better to inform and administer local investment, than those that know the patch?
There is also complete agreement between the public and private sector that until the regions can stop going cap in hand to central government and have the power to raise and spend more funds locally, that there is a ceiling to how successful LEPs can be.
It’s not all going to be plain sailing and there will be fallouts and communications challenges to overcome. I’m sure in the Leeds City Region many partners would have preferred Wakefield to back HS2 over High Speed UK and a new airport, but they are not alone in this thinking and it is not driven by a desire to be difficult.
But if a measure of success of LEPs can be getting unnatural bedfellows to cooperate for the greater benefit, then there’s a chance that in two years (and in some regions) they may have achieved something pretty unique.