Now is the time for district and borough councils to shine and drive economic development across their local areas.
In these days of enterprise partnership, it’s easier to assume leadership on such matters is a collective responsibility, than to recognise the role that all partners have to play individually.
It is therefore disappointing to hear that in some parts of the country, districts councils are not always making their voice heard in matters of sub-regional economic development, or are simply struggling to see their part in the grand scheme.
Although the future changes in local government finance have clearly re-focused many district and borough councils on the importance of local enterprise growth to local authority funding.
In Leicester and Leicestershire, we are fortunate; not only to have excellent support from district councils for the LEP, but also to have succeeded in a joint area-based approach which, including the city, creates local versions of the overall economic improvement plan for the sub-region.
Rather than all partners trying to lead on everything together, we have adopted a three-axis approach. First, business and enterprise lead on sector-specific improvement plans (Space, Food and Drink, Manufacturing,etc). Second, the city and county typically take a lead on sub-regional and pan-LEP area plans (Broadband, Transport, etc). The districts and the city council lead on the development and delivery of area based improvement plans which reflect the unique challenges and requirements of business and enterprise growth in each area. The coordination and benefit of the whole is brought back together by the collective in the form of the local enterprise partnership.
To achieve this we hold economic summits in each administrative area nothing flash or costly, just a local conversation in partnership between the local authority and the respective MP, with local business and education. Chambers and all similar organisations are also involved. In Harborough recently, the council leader made it very clear the district wanted a better relationship with business and requested challenge to the ways they work today, inviting suggestions for joint working in the future.
Local businesses naturally form up to share knowledge and meet around such geographical areas. Feedback across the sub-region has been good, but businesses need to see more local change, local economic leadership and local action if we are going to see the economic chain-reaction we desire.
District and borough councils play a massive part in stimulating the economy as the closest form of government to the bulk of our economic assets, especially in terms of SMEs and particularly home-based business. The problem is that much of the good work that goes on can be invisible to local businesses only five miles away from such as an enterprise zone or the development of transport infrastructure.
Business confidence will only rise when clear economic value is seen to be delivered in local areas. That means activity such as facilitating closer working between businesses and FE Colleges, local development of land assets for growth sectors, local apprenticeship schemes, and local business people working with schools, teachers and young people.
Districts are uniquely placed to tackle specific economic objectives. For example, the development of our market towns is a fundamental challenge. Each of the market towns across Leicestershire is in a different place economically, and this requires a tailored approach.
But districts must use land assets productively, engage with developers and business to understand and tackle their constraints to growth, and they must utilise their local relationships and available funds for the best return.
On some issues, such as the allocation of employment land and the funding and provision of strategic infrastructure, it will be necessary for districts and boroughs to work more closely together, both with each other and with their LEPs and other partners.
I am clear that the role of our district and borough councils is crucial to our economic future.
Andrew Bacon, chair, Leicester & Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership