Following on from my last blog about the need for LEP Economic Plans to take note of poverty and social inclusion issues it seems timely to consider the role of LEPs. From many of the comments received in response to that blog (for example on LinkedIn discussion groups) there appears to be a view that LEPs are there to create jobs and that others should be (and are) responsible for thinking about difficult issues like addressing poverty. Indeed, if you consider that LEPs are supposedly business led and their focus is on jobs growth and GDP growth, then perhaps it is wrong to assume that they would have anything to say about social inclusion or how the jobs they create could be made more accessible to those most in need. Personally I disagree, but clearly there is some opinion out there that says LEPs are small organisations with limited funds and staffing so their focus should be on core issues in order to actually achieve anything.
In my view, this brings into question the whole issue of why we need LEPs, what their role is and why, particularly in cities, they are the right vehicle to deliver on economic growth in isolation. You could level these questions at various aspects of the role of LEPs by asking why they were set up in the first place – was it because the current government had such a low opinion of local authorities that it thought this was a better solution, and they were of course desperate to get rid of the Regional Development Agencies, so had to replace them with something? Or was it because they thought business could do a better job of deciding where investment in roads, buildings and other development should be? You could equally argue about he negative impact these types of quangos have on democratic accountablity, taking decision making away from locally elected politicians and putting it in the hands of appointed boards full of business people who are accountable to no one. Add to that issues around what role local communities have in LEPs and how they can engage with these quangos and their plans and it begins to create an interesting but perhaps negative picture.
Perhaps more importantly, the question that springs to my mind is about LEPs and city regions – when we have combined authorities working across some of our key cities and their hinterland and we have directly elected mayors in some of our core cities, how does this work when you also have LEPs, sometimes covering different spatial areas? Add to that the issue about whether or not you can really consider economic growth without serious attention to issues of poverty and social inclusion (and of course environmental sustainability) then you can see the landscape of decisions, plans and strategies becomes somewhat cluttered – who really holds the power and makes the decisions?
The recent launch by the Centre for Cities of their Think Cities initiative which sees cities as the focus for change and believes empowering cities as the mechanism to tackling a range of urban issues is critical and you can begin to imagine just where some of these clashes and tensions may occur. I can’t help but agree with the Centre for Cities, cities are where the most significant growth will be seen and where the greatest changes can be made to provide solutions to our biggest problems around housing, jobs, public services and skills. But where city authorities have to compete with, or operate through, LEPs this is bound to reduce impact, increase confusion and complexity and water down ideas and change. When you have to get agreement from other councils to every decision, plan and strategy, then too often the lowest common denominator is what you end up with. The idea of directly elected mayors was to create accountable, visible leadership in an area, but by introducing LEPs into the equation the government have significantly weakened the ability of those mayors to deliver on ideas and innovation because they are effectively working with one hand tied behind their backs.
But even ignoring the fact of added confusion and complexity, what about the functions and roles of LEPs, what are they there for and why are they supposedly best placed to deliver on local economic growth? LEPs are charged with providing “strategic leadership on local economic priorities” including planning, housing, transport, skills, jobs etc a pretty big agenda, but when you consider they were set up with little or no funding, have few staff and limited resource, you have to question whether this is just too much? Would they be better focused on areas that clearly require significant input from business, such as the skills agenda and business support? Why should they be responsible for planning or housing issues when these have been core local council domains in the past, and indeed many would argue, should continue to be led by those with the democratic accountability rather than those with potential for conflict and vested interest?
With a reduced role focused on business support and skills I could see a key role for LEPs working across larger geographies, supporting the work of city authorities to deliver on jobs, housing, planning, social inclusion and sustainability (amongst other things). But their current diverse role is clearly too much for many LEPs to grapple with and we are in danger of missing some key links across agendas and of delivering on very little, as we stretch LEPs beyond their capabilities and abilities.
This should be an important issue for Party Manifestos going into the 2015 election. If we are being encouraged to think cities, then we need to address the existing landscape of decision making to properly put cities at the forefront of our economy. For me that means that, at least in city regions, there is no place for LEPs.