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The publication of the industrial strategy in late November prompted howls of indignation from local government and others.
Commons public accounts committee chair Meg Hillier (Lab) said it was “incomprehensible” that the government had chosen to make local enterprise partnerships the default leaders of local strategies in areas without metro-mayors.
The MP made her comments after details emerged of problems with the Greater Cambridgeshire Greater Peterborough LEP’s governance. Ms Hillier said the LEP’s issues with conflicts of interest were “certainly not uncommon” nationally.
That said, the industrial strategy white paper conceded there were problems with LEPs and that the government would more clearly define their roles and objectives. New guidance for LEPs specifically around governance was published in October.
Governance problems aside, many in and around local government felt LEPs should not be the default leaders of local strategies. New Local Government Network director Adam Lent said the government’s move was a missed opportunity that demonstrated its “blindness to the capacity, democratic leadership and burning appetite [councils] have to deliver local growth”. Even before the white paper was published, Localis chief executive Liam Booth-Smith warned LEPs would be a “sub-optimal choice” to lead industrial strategies.
But not everyone was outraged by the decision. Perhaps predictably, Chris Richards, head of business environment policy at the manufacturers’ organisation, EEF, said letting local authorities lead industrial strategies rather than LEPs was “unpalatable” for businesses.
Mr Richards said England’s non-metropolitan district councils did not match functional economic geographies, but that LEPs did. He said EEF members felt councils did not work together enough on economic growth but that LEPs brought businesses and decision-makers together more effectively. And if councils were serious about economic growth, Mr Richards said, the white paper presented a solution: bid for a devolution deal.
Phil Swann, executive chair of Shared Intelligence, was also more positive. Mr Swann called the negative response to the white paper “churlish” and criticised “anti-LEP rhetoric”. He said it was the responsibility of both parties if the relationship between a council and a LEP was not working, and that the white paper, with its focus on place, provided an opportunity for councils and LEPs to combine “community leadership” and “rich business intelligence” to drive economic growth.
We could argue until the cows come home about the merits and drawbacks of LEPs and councils in terms of stimulating economic growth. Perhaps it is fairer to say that not all councils have engaged well with businesses, and not all LEPs have operated in the transparent manner that comes as second nature to local government – but that neither type of organisation is ideal for leading economic growth in their current configurations. But because the white paper was, as chief reporter David Paine pointed out in a recent briefing, “a big document containing little substance”, the arguments over which organisations should lead local industrial strategies may well prove to be academic.
Rachel Dalton, features editor