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Phil Swann: LEPs have three key advantages that we must maintain

Phil Swann
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What does the future hold for local enterprise partnerships?

I was prompted to ask the question by a section in the government’s green paper, Building Our Industrial Strategy. It talks about the need for effective structures to support people, industries and places. Significantly the five pages devoted to this pillar of the government’s strategy contained only one reference to LEPs.

Indeed, the green paper muses about the possibility of there being “missing institutions which we could create, or existing ones we could strengthen, be they local civic or educational institutions, trade associations or financial networks”.

This intriguing gap follows hot on the heels of a full frontal assault on LEPs by a toxic combination of the Daily Mail and the chair of the Commons public accounts committee Meg Hillier. Last December the Mail challenged the probity of LEPs claiming to have identified at least 276 occasions on which growth deal money “has been used to make payments to the officials themselves, their own companies or projects they stand to benefit from”.

Ms Hillier was reported to have branded this as “completely unacceptable” and accused LEP boards of acting like “a cosy little club of private businesses”. In a report a few days later her committee was more circumspect, referring to LEPs’ accountability as “opaque” and complaining that the government had “not fully addressed our concerns about local scrutiny and accountability”.

On top of this at least one of the front-runners for the post of West Midlands mayor is said to be planning to abolish the area’s LEPs in his first 100 days; a commitment which will undoubtedly have voters flocking to the polls.

At their best LEPs bring at least three distinct things to local infrastructure to enable growth, which must not be lost.

First, they are a source of rich businesses intelligence, from both the business members of their boards and from their contacts with other businesses in their areas. Knowing which businesses have the ambition to grow, where they are located and what could help them to deliver their ambition is crucial.

Second, the combined impact of a respected LEP chair and an effective council leader can be enormous and far more impactful than either on their own. Place leadership should have a political and a business dimension.

Finally, LEPs have the potential to create new alliances with schools and colleges without the baggage associated with the days of Local Education Authorities. Business people frequently complain about school performance. The best LEPs channel that concern in a way which can make a difference.

Phil Swann, executive director, Shared Intelligence

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