Posted on:
7th July, 2022

We need to stop LEPs being needlessly frozen out’ of bidding for skills funding.

As a transition government maintains ongoing departmental business, LEPs are looking to their future priorities - one of which is skills, but a major anomaly excluding them from bidding for skills provision is something that must change with any new government in the Autumn. In an exclusive piece for the MJ, LEP Network Chair, Mark Bretton, makes the case.

We need to stop LEPs being needlessly frozen out’ of bidding for skills funding.

"The skills sector has a regular pipeline of policy announcements and skills initiatives which reflect how governments have battled to improve skills provision across the UK. The Skills for Jobs White Paper and the current Skills and Post-16 Education Act being the latest examples of that ambition.

But one issue is critical in all these initiatives, business must be central to directing that skills provision to the heart of where it’s needed – the employers and companies across the country who know exactly the skills they need.

A speech just over three years ago by the then skills minister Damian Hinds underlined the point by “putting employers at the heart of every reform we’re making to technical education.” With that came an announcement about the role of Skills Advisory Panels (SAPs) – local partnerships between businesses and public sector, local authorities and colleges and universities led by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), to determine the skills local businesses needed.

As business led and business driven, LEPs were in the driving seat on SAPs – fulfilling the very thing that government wanted to achieve – putting employers and business at the heart of local skills needs. 

But three years is a long time in the skills sector.

The latest changes in skills policy will effectively bypass the very partnerships government created. Despite the fact SAPs are tried and trusted, proven to engage local businesses at all levels across the country, tackle tough regional skills inequalities, and produce well respected data rich skills reports on projected skills needs, published by the DfE. They are unequalled, and above all, they are driven by the needs of business. 

They are being replaced with Local Skills Improvement Plans, that’s fine, but the issue for LEPs is that they are needlessly frozen out of the bidding process – it just doesn’t make sense, particularly as LEPs are invited to bid for DfE’s Institutes of Technology and Skills Bootcamps, yet excluded from bidding for LSIPs.

This risks losing the trusted partnerships, business experience, and skills know how built up over years, simply because LEPs are not deemed to meet the criteria of being an Employer Representative Body (ERB) ‘independent of Government’.

But the very essence of LEPs, as directed by government, is to represent the needs of local business through business led partnerships; private companies limited by guarantee, governed by corporate law, with commercial director responsibilities.

Every other criteria screams LEPs - developing and keeping under review an LSIP for the area, ‘reasonably representative of employers’ in the specified area, working in partnership with colleges, Institutes of Technology and other providers, working with MCAs, engaging with other stakeholders, and has the necessary strategic capacity, capability and leadership.

It defies logic that these local partnerships, built up over years, are excluded, in many cases their work is far more extensive than the LSIPs replacing them. Particularly as not every area necessarily has an ERB ready to put a bid in, so some areas may risk losing out.

LEPs are deeply embedded in skills provision, working with employers and partners (including many of the subscription ERBs) to build the data and intelligence that determines that provision. In many places it’s LEPs work with the local Chambers, Federation of Small Business etc. that is helping to produce Local Skills Improvement Plans!

Only last week figures from the Liverpool City Region LEP area showed that projects funded through LEP investment and Local Growth Fund far outstripped forecasts, with around 4,100 people starting new skills courses, against a target of 2,889. Beating the forecast by 42%.

Fundamental to that success was the role of the LEP, working with both the private and public sector, identifying what investment was needed including prioritising skills. Multiply that effort 38 times across the country and it becomes a formidable skills asset that is now being excluded.

In a debate on the Queen’s Speech, the Chair of the Cumbria LEP, Lord Inglewood, made the point perfectly “one of the things that puzzles us in the Cumbria LEP is that we are told that we will not be allowed to bid for skills provision in the future. Over the past few years, we were told that this was at the heart of our remit. After all, two-thirds of local enterprise partnerships’ members are from the private sector and understand what is needed in business”.

The ability of LEPs to innovate on skills and do exactly what LSIPs are trying to achieve is evident across the UK – initiatives like Buckinghamshire LEP’s ‘Skills to Film’ programme which tackled skills shortages already identified in the film industry by taking advantage of existing expertise in the local workforce. Or the work of the Solent LEP which won a Maritime UK Skills Award for its work with industry partners such as GKN, BAE Systems, MHI Vestas, QinetiQ and the Royal Navy, alongside local schools, colleges and universities, to develop world class education and skills facilities.

Are we really prepared to let these levels of expertise be excluded from bidding for skills provision in future?  We need to make sure they are not."  

This article originally appeared in the MJ.