Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Labour-backed report looks to reinforce role of LEPs

We’re definitely gearing up for the General Election, which is now less than a year away. 

Future Labour policy – designed to deliver the country’s economic growth should it win power – has surfaced in a report published by the Smith Institute, recommending the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) is reinforced.

The report, produced by former housing minister John Healey, the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne in South Yorkshire, looks at lessons learnt from the former Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and calls for a radical devolution of powers to the LEPs in an attempt to reduce the regional divide.

The fact it is backed in the foreword by Ed Balls, Shadow Chancellor, and Labour peer Andrew Adonis, who said it "provides a bedrock of evidence" to help inform the party’s local growth strategy, would suggest many of its recommendations could well find their way into the Labour Party Election Manifesto.

The report calls for closer working relations and integration between local authorities’ spatial local plans, and the LEPs’ Growth Plans. LEPs replaced RDAs, in our case: SEEDA.

There can be few in the development industry who would disagree with the report’s position that: “Getting the investment, regeneration and infrastructure – and therefore spatial planning decisions – right can provide the stimulus to development, especially in areas with little or no growth.” However, as we all know, what is said, and what actually happens, are often very different things.

Interestingly, the report considers whether LEPs should be given “statutory consultee status with added powers to challenge aspects of an area’s spatial plans”. Given that the county and districts are already represented on the LEP it’s difficult to see how this might work in reality, without undermining the partnerships. 

Another recommendation is: “Reviewing LEP geography to create a smaller number of larger and more effective bodies.” In the case of the SE LEP – covering Kent, Essex and East Sussex – due to its scale as the largest LEP geographically it has struggled to find a clear way forward. As a result, SE LEP recently decided to adopt a ‘federal structure’ and come together as one LEP on the big ticket issues, but to determine delivery at a local level for local issues, through the Kent & Medway Economic Partnership in the case of Kent.

In what appears to be an attempt to clarify the key roles of LEPs, the report argues they should cover the: “Influencing and aligning infrastructure development to support business and growth”, including through transport, planning, housing, energy and utilities, and flood prevention.

Having been involved with the SE LEP as one of the Kent business representatives, it is clear there’s a national need to clarify the roles and responsibilities, and ensure that through greater consistency business can be better engaged through better understanding. 

This report appears to be a clear attempt to create more of a blueprint for the work of the LEPs, and while suggestions that only one government department has responsibility for LEPs (currently two: BIS and DCLG) may not be popular with some in Whitehall, I’m sure business and local government officers would welcome it. 

Worryingly for the South East – and where Labour starts to show its real motivation behind the report – is the recommendation of: “Extra focus on LEP areas with greater economic disadvantages”. There’s a very clear signal that once again ‘local’ economic policy could return to regional policy as it attempts to reduce the north-south divide – and we all know how successful that’s been. 

And while the government may have recognised the plight of parts of Kent when it comes to Assisted Area Status, there’s always the risk that funding will be directed northwards away from the South East, where it could be used to back winners, 

The report, Making Local Economies Matter, can be found here.

• Andrew Metcalf, is a director of Maxim, an alternate business representative on SE LEP and represents business on Kent & Medway Economic Partnership.

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