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Is it possible that council leaders could feel a trifle miffed that Theresa May yesterday received all 38 local enterprise partnership chairs in a meeting at 10 Downing Street? It’s been a long time since a similar gathering was held for the lychpins of local democracy.
Admittedly, fitting all 431 UK council leaders in might require the prime minister to borrow chairs from the neighbours, but surely she could have received a delegation?
Ms May has no doubt met some individual leaders, but the LEP chairs got a publicised meeting complete with warm words about their role and a group photograph outside Number 10. This was the for the first meeting of the Council of Local Enterprise Partnership Chairs, a year after the body’s creation was promised in her industrial strategy.
Comments from a Downing Street spokesperson suggest there was one mild admonishment from the PM to ensure that LEP leaderships “truly represented the communities they served”, with Ms May citing progress made in the number of women on FTSE100 boards as an example to follow.
Leaving aside that appointed bodies by their nature cannot ‘truly represent’ their communities or anyone else, and that the male/female ratio is one among several aspects of diversity, what is signalled by have a formal gathering for LEP leaders while council leaders remain shouting from beyond Downing Street’s formidable gates?
Although councils are better represented on LEPs than they were on some earlier ‘business led’ bodies (anyone remember training and enterprise councils?) there may still be concerns firstly that LEPs exercise powers that more properly belong in local government, and secondly that they sprawl untidily across council areas causing confusion and duplication.
The 38 LEPs were originally created to follow economic geographies rather than administrative boundaries, so crossing council areas is inevitable, however many areas are in more than one LEP, raising questions about accountability. Further structural and accountability complexity is added by the fact that since LEPs’ creation combined authorities have appeared, leading to a further layer in some places.
The LEPs were last winter handed the leading role in delivering local industrial strategies within the government’s overarching national one, except where combined authority mayors would take this role.
This was despite then communities secretary Sajid Javid having warned LEPs to examine their corporate governance and the government last October feeling the need to propose reforms to LEPs’ transparency.
The Greater Cambridgeshire Greater Peterborough LEP was last year subject of a National Audit Office report warning of a conflict of interest which led the Department for Communities & Local Government to freeze its £37.6m growth deal funding.
The right-leaning thinktank Localis last year released a report stating that strategic local authorities, rather than LEPs, should lead on the industrial strategy. In an LGC article its then chief executive Liam Booth-Smith - now housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire’s special advisor - declared himself “unconvinced” that LEPs should gain the leading role.
He wrote: ”In spite of obvious deficiencies and independent criticism, the government seems committed to privileging LEPs when it comes to strategic economic governance. Why? Partly this comes down to government favouring its own pet projects. LEPs are a Conservative creation. Some do a very good job, with excellent people involved on boards and leading them.”
LGC might add that governments tend to believe both that business leaders know about efficiency, enterprise, prosperity and other processes mysterious to most national politicians. The perception is that council leaders know little of these desirable things and merely wish to spend money.
So what can councils do to boost their appeal? Mr Booth-Smith wrote: “Local government carries some of the responsibility for its marginalisation. Internecine rows over unitary status, councils hiring consultants to fight proxy wars, weak collaboration on planning and development; I could go on.”
Until such issues are dealt with - and the reports published today for the County Councils Network demanding the tier it represents gains a stronger co-ordinating role over planning may be an attempt by local government to do just this - it may be that it is the LEP chairs who get more invitations to No 10.
Mark Smulian, reporter, LGC