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Exclusive: Councils could take over from RDAs in six months

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Local authorities could have replacement bodies ready to take over from the regional development agencies within a year, an independent survey of town halls has found.

The survey of 69 councils undertaken by economic development consultancy Rocket Science, found more than two-thirds of the respondents - largely the heads of economic development in county, district and metropolitan councils - thought they could have their Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in place within six to 12 months.

The coalition government has asked councils to come together in new partnerships with business over “natural economic areas” to take on many of the functions and responsibilities of the regional development agencies, which are to be abolished by March 2012.

But as revealed in LGC the timetable for the transition of functions from the RDAs to the LEPs has been brought forward, with most RDAs expected to be phased out by September 2011.

Activity

The survey, which is being forwarded to the communities secretary Eric Pickles and the business secretary Vince Cable, found that there was already “significant activity underway” to prepare the ground for LEPs, with county and metropolitan councils taking the lead. It found that 70% of county council respondents had developed “advanced” proposals.

But it noted that many district councils had been slow to engage with the LEP agenda, with respondents from districts saying they were waiting for further guidance from central government, in the form of a sub-national growth white paper expected this summer.

Consequently, the report warned of a “danger” in two-tier areas “that district councils will be marginalised in the development of the LEP agenda”.

There was a “broad consensus” that LEPs should operate over functional economic areas, the survey found, with councils keen to work “pragmatically” and avoid “reinventing the wheel”.

Partnerships

More than half of the survey respondents indicated it was their intention to build on existing partnerships, such as multi-area agreements, than to “start from scratch”.

The survey found there was a consensus LEPs should focus on employment, skills and enterprise support and – worryingly for ministers – inward investment and business support, which the coalition has said will become a function of central government.

There was less support, however, for LEPs to take on planning or transport functions.

The survey also found there were “clear and recurring” themes around the key priority of LEPs, which respondents said should be focused on providing “strategic co-ordination and management of the resources and activities of different partners involved in the economic development agenda locally”.

Consensus

There was also a “strong consensus” that LEP should fulfil “higher strategic functions”, such as commissioning services, lobbying government, research and development, and the management and distribution of resource, the survey found.

But the respondents were less enthusiastic about LEPs undertaking operational activity, in terms of the “actual delivery of programmes and projects on the ground”. Only 60% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with this suggestion.

When asked about the challenges facing the successful implementation of LEPs, the survey found “by far the most commonly recurring theme” was concern about a lack of resources or finance.

Ministers have not yet set out the details of how LEPs will be funded, but it is unlikely that they will have a dedicated funding stream and partners may need to pool their resources for day to day running costs.

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