THE BLOG

LEPs and Whitehall - A Closer Link Is Essential

12/09/2013 13:11 BST | Updated 11/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) were created on the premise that they would not be "creatures of Government". Nevertheless, Business Minister Michael Fallon MP has reiterated that it's also important to demonstrate that neither are they "creatures of local government". The Government has introduced core-funding to remove the reliance of LEPs on local authorities. For many this may seem confusing, given that deploying central government funding to minimise local government influence is surely still an example of government control.

While I won't go into the relationships between LEPs and local authorities here, Mr Fallon's position acknowledges the sometimes conflicting policies of central and local government and, in particular, the role the Government must take to provide LEPs with the powers they need to effect change locally. In the case of funding, this role extends to accountability - taxpayers want to know that their money is being used productively. Although LEPs might not be "creatures of Government", they need to work with central government to ensure they are able to deliver their policy objectives. Communication is key, and at present, the Government's localism agenda is failing to engage with LEPs effectively. Below, I will set out three measures the Coalition can take forward that will improve this relationship.

In the recent Commons' Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee report, assessing the current LEP landscape, it was highlighted that many LEPs are unsure as to where responsibility for their work lies in central government. With Ministerial responsibility shared between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), LEPs find the lines of communication "confusing and inconsistent". I would therefore recommend assigning a single lead Minister who would be accountable for the overall performance of LEPs.

In response to the BIS Select Committee's report, the Government referred to the creation of a Local Growth Committee, set up to "strengthen the commitment to local growth across Government". Chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, and including the Secretaries of State from a number of Government Departments, this is a significant development for LEPs. It is imperative that this Committee meets on a quarterly basis, and in order to open up effective channels of communication between Government and the LEPs (and gain a greater understanding of their concerns and intentions), the Committee should also set up a forum that enables them to directly engage with all 39 LEPs.

The third measure I propose is the re-establishment of Regional Ministers, last seen under Gordon Brown's government. In his No Stone Unturned report, Lord Heseltine advocated the creation of Local Growth Teams, made up of civil servants, "tasked with joining up government and local partners in the areas of their responsibilities to facilitate, identify and realise economic opportunities." Such teams may not be able to effectively champion the interests of their area and could simply create an additional tier of bureaucracy. By re-establishing Regional Ministers, who would lead in engaging with LEPs and ensuring local growth in the English region allocated to them, LEPs would be able to communicate directly with a Minister with significant authority.

Although LEPs set their own priorities and objectives, the Government, both local and central, plays an important role in providing LEPs with the resources they need to carry them out. Central Government, in particular, is responsible for devolving specific powers and funding and should, therefore, create a system whereby they can better communicate with and understand the LEP landscape. Constant monitoring isn't necessary, but LEPs need a clearer and more direct link with Government if they are to prove successful.

Clarity or Confusion, LEPs at the Crossroads published by Insight Public Affairs can be downloaded at www.insightpa.com