The rebirth of LEPs is under way

24 April 2014

There is no shortage of headlines in LEP land at the moment. Some in local government were writing the obituaries of LEPs before Christmas but recent events seem to suggest a “re-birth” now in the offing.

In March, Alex Pratt the Chairman of the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley LEP was confirmed as the new Chair of the LEP Network, replacing David Frost.  The LEP Network annual conference met in London, phenomenally well attended with four ministers and shadows, and Lord Heseltine waiting in the wings.  Interest in LEPs had not exactly hit a low watermark.

Greg Clark gave an impassioned defence of the growth deal process, and cautioned on the Whitehall challenge LEPs would face on their new proposals.  Having expected scepticism, or a complete overhaul of LEPs from Labour, some in the room were surprised to hear Toby Perkins, the Shadow BIS minister, rally the room with “the next Labour govt won’t tear up LEPs, but will work with you to strengthen them”.

Ed Miliband’s speech in Birmingham followed in early April, committing the next Labour government to doubling the single local growth fund (to a still small, still competitive £4bn a year), but ominously for councils outside the cities, said LEPs would need to follow a “city- and county-region” footprint, potentially causing another 2010-esque costly redrawing of the boundaries of actual functioning economic areas.

SOLACE has now weighed into the debate calling for councils to stay in the driving seat in LEPs, and confirming over 75% of Chief Executives see economic growth as the top local priority – but with a far more mixed view on LEPs’ effectiveness so far in helping deliver this.

The jury is still out on LEPs.  But we may now have the ingredients coming together to make them successful at least for the medium-term.  A clear cross-party commitment to LEPs continuing beyond 2015.  A small but increasing local growth fund.  Positive Whitehall reception for challenging devolution proposals.

Challenges abound.  Huge pressures on the adult skills budget are not well known to many LEPs, but are a major obstacle to the “people” aspect of local economic regeneration.  Whitehall still fails to commit substantial devolved funding, or to properly connect public service reform with local economic growth aspirations.

Ultimately, what matters is what works for local growth plans.  With these omens signalling some stability for local growth architecture over the next parliament, we need to roll up our sleeves, and help councils and LEPs deliver ambitious skills plans and growth to benefits all people in their localities.  LEPs might yet live on to fight another day.

First published by the Local Government Chronicle on 14 April 2014.