Since the late seventies there have been forty different schemes to boost economic activity in the North to help close the gap with the booming South East. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are the latest initiative and their performance has come under the eagle eye of the National Audit Office (NAO).
Their findings matter because by 2021 £12bn of our money will be channelled through LEPs under the Local Growth Fund. However the NAO has just published a report saying many of them lack capacity, expertise, transparency and that they spend money on short term projects because of Whitehall funding conditions.
There are LEPs all across the North with Leeds awarded the largest Growth Deal so far, £627m. Greater Manchester tops the national table for money given to transport projects. Liverpool City Region has been well staffed from the outset having taken on the staff of the Mersey Partnership. Warrington and Cheshire LEP is boosted by Warrington’s ability to take advantage of its excellent connectivity. With regard to Lancashire, Downtown recently hosted a top level conference at Brockholes where the ambition of the county to be part of the Northern Powerhouse was clear.
For all that there are major challenges facing our LEPs. For instance what exactly is their role in the Northern Powerhouse world of City Regions and elected mayors? The government wants LEPs centrally involved in the devolution deals they have recently signed. But LEPs have told the NAO they are uncertain of their role particularly when their boundaries are not aligned with city regions. The relationship between the business led LEPs and city region mayors, to be elected next year, remain unclear.
The idea behind LEPs was that senior business leaders would play prominent roles, but getting these busy people involved has proved difficult. The impression is sometimes given that the business representation on LEPs lacks heft and drive. The NAO calls for business to make a greater effort to be involved after years of complaints that such bodies were dominated by politicians.
Although LEPs are business led, they rely heavily on local councils for expertise. 69% of LEPs told the NAO they did not have enough staff of their own and 28% said they were not skilled enough. However local councils are under enormous pressure to empty bins and care for the elderly. There has been a 68% cut in Town Hall spending on economic development, the core function of LEPs.
LEPs have been around for a few years now, so how are they doing? Are they providing value for money? The NAO is critical about Whitehall’s methods for answering that question. LEPs have admitted that pressure to spend money in a single financial year has sometimes led them to invest in “spade ready” schemes rather than ones that would be of longer term benefit.
LEPs also need to raise their profile with the public with greater media coverage and seek ways to be more democratically accountable. The danger of not putting down roots in the community was seen when the Coalition government was able to sweep away the Regional Development Agencies with little public reaction.