Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Local Enterprise Partnerships have a bright future – don't write them off yet

My Article as published in The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/local-government-network/2011/dec/01/local-enterprise-partnerships-bright-future

Although they've been unfairly criticised, LEPs have made a lot of progress in their first year and there's a lot to be excited about

Lorna Gibbons

Guardian Professional, Thursday 1 December 2011 08.45
Local Enterprise Partnerships have a bright future.
The first 24 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) were established more than year ago. The Centre for Cities thinktank has produced a report on the progress of the partnerships to mark their first anniversary, claiming LEPs are underperforming and have made little headway since their creation. I take issue with this conclusion.

The study looks at a number of variables on which performance can be judged, from governance to communications. These measures are largely irrelevant to the success, or otherwise, of the LEPs to date.

When it comes to governance, LEPs come in different shapes and sizes. Some created a shadow board, some did not. Some had their boards recognised by government, while others did not – but that is not to say a board does not exist. Solent's LEP recruited its board through a fair and open process, but as there is still a vacancy for a woman in the team it has yet to be recognised centrally. Solent is not the only LEP in this position.

Each LEP will have indicated its own strategy and local priorities, outlined in its prospectus. Published information about each partnership's focus does exist and the partnerships are accountable to their own ambitions. Enterprise zones, however, were bid for through a competitive process. If an LEP did not win an accompanying enterprise zone, that does not mean the partnership has failed to achieve its objectives; it is more likely that, geographically and politically, the area is less suitable for such a policy.

It is true that there may be a two-tier LEP structure developing. There are LEPs that have enterprise zones, access to a regional growth fund and established partnership arrangements, which will give them an advantage over other LEP areas with less history, smaller budgets and fewer projects to lever in business support. But these LEPs will still be able to make a major impact.

Communications should also not be used to judge LEPs. Having a dedicated website does not equate with local success. The South East LEP, for example, does not have its own website, but it publishes timely information about its work through Essex county council's site (with weekly board updates) and is probably saving a lot of money in the process.

But looking to the future, there is a lot for LEPs to be excited about. The partnerships are currently spending their start-up fund drawing up business plans, recruiting and training boards, putting communications strategies in place and other first tasks. This should level the playing field by the end of March 2012, for all of the 38 LEPs now in action.

A second-round capacity pot will be announced shortly, with additional funding made available in April 2012. A number of LEPs, including Greater Manchester, Solent and Cornwall, also placed successful regional growth fund bids.

The £500m Growing Places Fund prospectus is now out. Funding has been allocated to LEPs on a formula basis and they are expected to receive their allocation in February next year. This funding will be ploughed into new infrastructure. It is also worth noting that Buckinghamshire's planned LEP has been allocated £4,167,713 (subject to ministerial approval) – a strong indicator that the 39th partnership is soon to be announced.

LEP sector groups are also being established, including a rural network and an aerospace group – some of which have already met. Meanwhile, the government intends to consult a new structure and devolve decisions and funding for local capital transport improvements from April 2015 to a number of "local transport consortia", each made up of a number of LEPs and their constituent councils.

LEPs will have a fuller and more varied role in future, and they have made a lot of progress over their first year.

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