Posted on:
10th March, 2023

Ministers must be clear and unequivocal with LEPs

In an exclusive article for the Local Government Chronicle, LEP Network Chair, Mark Bretton, calls on the government to come clean on Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Ministers must be clear and unequivocal with LEPs

It’s that time of year yet again when we wake up to read that, even after five years of reviews and multiple letters from Ministers expressing their appreciation for our work, the future of LEPs remains in doubt. It’s Groundhog day for LEPs yet again. There can be no other arm of Government that has been scrutinised so often, so deeply and on each occasion has passed muster, but for reasons that are frankly lost on the LEP community, the agonising persists.

Where else can Government get access to the horsepower of over 2000 high-calibre business, 350 academic and 200 Local Government leaders plus talented executives for the princely sum of two bob and a conker?  And yet, we’re stuck in the same LEPhog time loop again.

I took up my LEP role on the day of the Brexit vote and was appointed as chair of the LEP Network, the body that binds together every LEP in England, just before we plummeted into the depths of Covid.  In that extraordinary period LEPs were a key cog in the engine that helped save the economy.  Our Growth Hubs supported over 2m local businesses, we delivered over 100 focused interventions and played our part on the local and national stage.

As Covid retreated we geared up again, executing Boris’s Getting Building Fund, bringing evidence based projects forward at pace, alongside the delivery skills that have been the hallmark of success for literally thousands of projects that have made significant impact to our local communities.

When Government said they wanted more devolution we leant into the process, with LEP colleagues holding the ring locally, laying the foundations to successfully integrate as part of the new machine, ensuring that the voice of business has its place at the table.  And let’s not forget that whilst we need Government in all its forms to establish the environment for growth, it is business that creates the jobs.

However, we have just had our usual LEPhog day letter.  Another cut to our meagre core funding.  It isn’t the quantum of the funding that is the issue; we all know that to run a LEP costs a multiple of what we have ever received from the Centre, it’s the message that Ministers are sending.  In two years, the core funding has been nearly halved from only £19m to £10.5m in total, a mere decimal point in Government spending.

What puzzles and frankly annoys my colleagues is why so much effort is being expended on internally facing process work when we could do so much more to help the economy.  Why cut core funding again but force us to use it to rearrange the LEP deckchairs?  Why squander the time so many of us are giving back for no payment, a contribution that Government would have to pay many millions to procure on a consultancy basis?  Why does erroneous folklore continue to outweigh fact?

And it is because we all care about our local communities that we have been doing this for so long, why we can attract the likes of the Vice President at Nissan UK and MD of Nielsen UK, the Chief Economist at the Faraday Institution and Chairman of Yeo Valley farms as well as so many local leaders who are prepared to divert so much of their precious time to play their part in the LEP team.

Even more importantly, we feel a direct responsibility for our Executive teams.  These are real people with real families who have pulled out all the stops when times were tough, done everything and more that was asked of them.  Where is the care and courtesy from Whitehall for them?  No wonder we are seeing increased levels of attrition and an inability to replace their lost talent.

In his article in LGC last week Jonathan Werran made many valid points and, as he has done before, adds support to our questions of why we are still going through this annual pantomime.  We agree; it really is time for Ministers to give us the courtesy of being clear and unequivocal about the future of LEPs and the role of business in devolved authorities.

At one of his last public engagements as Chancellor, the PM publicly thanked me on behalf of the LEP community for the work we have done.   There is no other Government body with LEPs’ convening power and our impact on skills and certainly none with such a huge return on investment and the ability to attract significant funding from the private sector both home and abroad.  Our teams remain completely committed to flex and adapt to meet the demands of their local economies, staying out of the politics to get things done. 

Our resilience remains absolute.  Let’s not waste this capability anymore; let’s set the LEPhog free!


This article originally appeared in the Local Government Chronicle