The introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) initially received a mixed reaction. They are now though an established part of local leadership but that does not mean the challenges are lessened. In fact, with a new government and Prime Minister in place, the pressures have increased.
Theresa May’s government have to date implemented a ‘scorched earth’ approach to much of what David Cameron and George Osborne had done as Prime Minister and Chancellor. Despite only having a General Election a little over a year ago, May’s government is to all intents and purposes completely new.
That means the old priorities and policies are all under scrutiny. The Northern Powerhouse was one of the first parts of the approach to devolution which was openly questioned. May’s apparent lack of enthusiasm even forced the former Chancellor and architect of the Powerhouse, George Osborne, to launch a new think tank aimed at holding the Government to account on devolution to the North.
Chancellor Philip Hammond’s first Autumn Statement did its best to commit to the project, with the launch of a new strategy, but critically to other initiatives around the country, across the Midlands, the Oxford-Cambridge corridor and Scotland. This was an attempt to rebalance devolution.
LEPs also received specific allocations in the Autumn Statement from the Local Growth Fund with improving productivity very much in mind.
But LEPs are not immune from the questioning attitude of the new PM and the entire set-up of the government complete with new ministers.
So what the challenges facing LEPs and what can they do about them?
- Maintaining the enthusiasm of the private sector – the relationship with business has always made LEPs slightly different from other parts of local government. There is, however, significant risk, as well as opportunities, now in the economy as a result the Brexit vote. This could mean that business has less time for core activities meaning LEPs could suffer.
- The need to build and maintain a reputation – businesses know and understand the value of reputations, as do local authorities. However, time and, already stretched, resources need to be invested in reputations. A strong reputation will help when dealing with government and local bodies and will also reassure businesses that you really mean business.
- Policy positions – government, especially recently created ones such as this, needs a constant flow of new ideas. A positive policy engagement with government can be tricky to get right but the age of austerity saw cuts to the policy development and research side of the civil service. This provides LEPs with an opportunity. Brexit will take all the time of the civil service as well as politicians so constructive engagement through the development of policy initiatives will work well.
- Competition – there are lots of local voices all try to get the ear of government, it is a crowded market place. LEPs need to demonstrate their worth, individually and collectively, whilst also not being smothered by the power of some of the big cities.
- The end of devolution? Despite the most recent comments, there remains a real danger that this government is simply not as committed to devolution. LEPs are not alone in needing to show business and central government that devolution is more important than ever post Brexit and that the European issues should not be used as an excuse for increased central control.
A lot of these challenges can be met head-on through effective engagement and communications. If an LEP thinks too narrowly about its own positioning either locally or nationally then it risks being cast adrift.
Government is still crying out for the type of private sector engagement that LEPs bring so this core element should never be forgotten. Especially in this period when the approach to Brexit is being decided upon, LEPs can really represent what local businesses need. This gives them a unique opportunity and position.
It is also the responsibility of every LEP to ensure that the eye of Government does not drift away from what they and their local areas need.
LEPs need to keep the pressure up.
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