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LEP link-ups key to Northern economic future

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Last week Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership set out its strategy for economic growth under the banner: realising our potential. The event was attended not only by those from the city region but also interested parties from further afield. At one level the presence of Sheffield and Manchester at the event might simply have been a case of ‘nosy neighbours’, but as LEP boards and secretariats begin to find their feet, the potential for LEP collaboration in the North of England has significant potential.

There are some very obvious areas of joint interest and concern, not least securing investment in strategic transport infrastructure. Whether it is guaranteeing that HS2 does include its second phase connections to Leeds and Manchester or ensuring that Northern Hub proposals connecting Liverpool across to Leeds come to fruition ahead of any ‘Crossrail 2’, LEPs have a shared interest in working together.

But beyond shared assets, there are also areas where LEPs would do well to recognise each other’s strategic assets and explore opportunities for complementary development rather than direct competition. For example, the University of Sheffield and Boeing’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has global significance and brings clear benefits well beyond its city region from which other Northern LEPs can benefit. Many significant industries such as the automotive or offshore wind sectors in the North East depend upon supply chains which could extend across the UK. Recognising one another’s comparative advantages must be a key feature of LEP development if they are to move beyond the rather anodyne proposals they initially submitted to government and pass the so-called ‘tippex test’.

European funding provides a further reason for LEP collaboration. EU administrative geographies still recognise the good old English region as their primary unit for disbursing their investment. With more than £100m to be committed before 2013 in the North West alone LEPs need to co-ordinate their demands to ensure these vital funds are used most effectively. The bigger prize though is the post-2013 European Structural Fund settlement. With big decisions due to be taken both nationally and in Brussels in the next 12 months, the Northern regions will benefit from a collective approach to negotiations.

Indeed, it is that ‘Northern voice’ that is perhaps the most urgent and compelling reason for LEP collaboration. Whilst Tees Valley should be congratulated for striking the first bilateral agreement between a LEP and UKTI, one wonders how much it will count for once all the other LEPs have followed suit. LEPs were always vulnerable to central government divide-and-rule and inward investment is one obvious area where few LEPs will have the muscle either to go it alone or to rely on London to lobby for them. The Work Programme, skills strategy and business support are three other areas where a co-ordinated LEP lobby to government could bring local benefits - not least outside core cities.

But who will articulate such ‘Northern voice’? In July, IPPR North launched the Northern Economic Futures Commission as a small and short-term opportunity for a pan-Northern conversation on economic development. Its Call for Evidence remains open until 14th October after which it will take 12 months to highlight a series of areas where LEP co-ordination might enable policy and investment add up to more than the sum of its parts. Contributions for or against are most welcome.

Ed Cox is Director of IPPR North, IPPR’s dedicated think tank for the North of England.

If you would like to submit evidence to the Northern Economic Futures Commission please email by 14th October.

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