On July 4th Downtown is hosting a vital conference to discuss how northern cities like Leeds and Liverpool can accelerate change and economic growth. It is well timed if an event I attended at the Commons this week is anything to go by.
The Smith Institute and Regional Studies Association were posing the question “Where next for Local Enterprise Partnerships?” LEPs were set up in the wake of the wholesale destruction of regional structures by the incoming Coalition government in the summer 0f 2010.
LEPs were to be slim, local, business led organisations to drive economic growth. The problem was,initially at least, they had little money or structure and their targets were unclear. Over the last three years they have largely been left to get on with it. The result is that across the North of England LEPs have evolved in very different ways.
In Manchester and Leeds they have been able to take advantage of the combined authorities of the local councils. Liverpool’s LEP, after a slow start, inherited the infrastructure of the Mersey Partnership. In Cheshire and Lancashire the organisations are smaller.
Despite the good work they are doing, the big question remains are they fit for purpose in trying to close the North South divide. The conclusion of the Commons conference I attended was that they are not.
As a convinced regionalist I found the discussion frustrating. There was frequent mention of the need for the LEPs to work more closely together to create a critical mass to be effective. The logic points to a need for a strategic organisation across the North to take major decisions on transport, planning and infrastructure. That’s not going to happen under this government or a possible Labour administration who’ve said they will work with the “patchwork quilt” of local structures. How daft is that?
Reference was made to a recent Ernst and Young report on direct foreign investment into the UK. There was much rejoicing when the report came out that the North West had seen a 13% rise with Yorkshire not far behind. However the comparable figures for Scotland Wale4s and Northern Ireland were respectively 49%,244% and 71%. What do they have in common? Powerful, well resourced devolved government. Simon Alport Ernst and Young’s North West senior partner concluded that the closure of the Regional Development Agencies may have undermined the performance of English regions. Not may Simon, it did.
The Commons conference concluded that the government lacked a coherent regional policy with a bewildering patchwork of initiatives from the Regional Growth Fund to Enterprise Zones, City Deals to community budgets.
Andy Pike from Newcastle University believes the government is torn between centralism as it battles austerity and a commitment to localism. The result is that LEPs operate in a world of multiple actors which is time consuming and lacking in accountability.
There were other opinions. Nigel Guy from Leeds LEP saw no problem with different LEPs going at different speeds and wanted more power for the City Regions.
Blackpool MP Gordon Marsden was sceptical of the argument that powerful City Regions in Manchester and Liverpool could help his town. He recalled a conversation with Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese when they were battling over who would have a super casino. Marsden had told him on a good day the “Manchester” effect would stretch to Preston, on a bad day to Bolton but never Blackpool.
An important indication of government policy will come shortly in the comprehensive spending review when the Chancellor announces the size of the single growth pot for local devolved spending. Will London let go of enough money to make a difference up North? Don’t hold your breath.