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A map of local enterprise partnerships looks as if someone had decided to trace top-tier boundaries then got bored and added random lines to them.
Fully 38 LEPs sprawl across England, with 15 overlaps ranging in size from half of North Yorkshire to Brighton & Hove.
LEP geography was based on a sensible idea – following economic rather than administrative boundaries – and their governance on a more controversial one of being business-led but with local government representation.
Unfortunately, nobody in 2011 foresaw fresh local government reorganisation or the creation of combined authorities.
This meant that Steve Barclay, the Conservative MP for North East Cambridgeshire, found his constituency variously governed by Fenland DC, Cambridgeshire CC, the Greater Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough (GCGP) LEP and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CA.
He thought this tangle was likely to foster confusion and opacity and began digging. His researches ended in him accusing local dignitaries of being ‘liars’ and ’delusional’ which was escalated into a complaint to the National Audit Office about conflicts of interest and concerns about how the LEP allocated cash for projects.
That led to a scathing report last autumn and now the public accounts committee thinks the LEP’s shortcomings may be the tip of an iceberg generally.
Its report did not hold back, noting that while the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government had asserted there had been no misuse of public money “this is due more to luck than effective oversight…we are not at all convinced that the issues uncovered in GCGP LEP might not be found elsewhere in other LEPs”.
Committee chair Meg Hillier MP (Lab) said: “This troubling case only serves to underline our persistent concerns about the governance of LEPs, their transparency and their accountability to the taxpayer.”
Turning to LEPs’ interaction with mayors and combined authorities, she said: “Taxpayers surveying the increasingly complex landscape of local government might reasonably ask what LEPs are for.”
That presupposes that taxpayers have heard of LEPs, but a wider problem is that LEPs, combined authorities and local government reorganisation have developed as three unconnected processes.
Powers, responsibilities and governance might be straightforward where boundaries coincide, but there are two LEPs in the West Midlands CA area, while GCGP covers not merely the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA but overlaps six other counties.
And what of reorganisation? If communities secretary Sajid Javid delivers on his recent ‘minded to’ decisions, there will be two unitary councils and one LEP in Dorset where the reorganisation proposal foresees a “Dorset-wide Combined Authority of which the Dorset LEP will be a member” – which looks like duplication if not triplication.
Reorganised Buckinghamshire would be in the curious position of having one unitary council, a LEP covering the entire county and another one overlapping about half of it.
Northamptonshire at least lies within the South East Midlands LEP whichever way it is eventually sliced and diced.
Were an elected mayor really created for historic Yorkshire they would preside over four LEP areas, one of which sprawls into Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and another into historic Lincolnshire.
If combined authorities and unitaries spread, it could be argued that for avoidance of duplication the LEPs’ role should shrink. However, with the government’s industrial strategy emphasising it wants to see an “enhancement” of the role of LEPs that is not likely to happen.
By Mark Smulian, reporter