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  • Writer's pictureEastern Powerhouse

Who advocates to Government for regional economic growth?

In 2010, the coalition government created a network of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), delivering on one of the Conservative’s election promises to abolish the Regional Development Agencies.

LEPs were designed as a less bureaucratic and more collaborative partnership between local authorities and businesses. The aim was to drive economic strategy, job creation, and infrastructure development, tailored to the needs of local economic geographies. However, their footprints were considerably smaller than regions. Outside of the main urban centres, they were largely organised along county boundaries. Some operated across boundaries, such as the New Anglia LEP, which covered Norfolk and Suffolk.

One key aspiration for the LEPs was to decentralise decision-making and empower local communities to shape their economic destinies. The idea was to bring together both public and private sectors, with their deep understanding of their localities, to better identify the opportunities and challenges and steer investment and development in a more targeted and effective manner. This included simplifying access by business to growth funding.

In terms of perceived performance, LEPs faced a mixed reception. Supporters praised their potential for fostering collaboration and driving localised economic strategies. Each was designed as a partnership to facilitate engagement between local authorities, businesses, colleges, universities, and other stakeholders, promoting a more cohesive approach to local development. Proponents argued that this localised decision-making process could lead to more nuanced and effective solutions than a regionalised, one-size-fits-all approach.

However, critics raised concerns about the inconsistency of LEP performance across different regions. In the East, some partnerships thrived, such as the New Anglia LEP. In contrast, others faced challenges related to funding, accountability, and a perceived lack of transparency, such as the Cambridgeshire LEP, which was folded into the Combined Authority. Almost all failed to articulate a more expansive vision for the Eastern Region.

Additionally, questions were raised about the representation and inclusivity of LEPs. Ensuring that all sectors of society, including marginalised communities, had a voice in the economic planning process remained a challenge. Upper Tier Authorities, whilst technically the hosts of the LEPS, resented the transfer of their economic development functions into the LEP and long argued they could do the role better. Other critics argued that without broader representation, the outcomes of LEP initiatives might not address the diverse needs of the entire community.

This year, the government signalled the demise of the LEPs, with most of their functions being transferred to the upper-tier councils, namely the county councils in East Anglia. The trick will be to build on the successes of LEPs in bringing the voice of companies and business leaders into the economic development decision-making process.

In my experience, as a former county council leader, business leaders get very frustrated with the cumbersome decision-making processes of local government. So, there is a real danger that business leaders will disengage. Equally, District Councils play a significant part in economic development with their planning powers, and again, upper-tier authorities (Counties) are in danger of deciding the economic strategy for their footprints without other key actors being involved.

But perhaps the greatest failing of the LEPs and, indeed, local government is the lack of a shared vision for infrastructure investment across the East. This has meant that other regional entities like the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse have been listened to and supported by Government.

Remember that the East of England is bigger than Scotland; yet where is the engagement with Westminster?

Hence, the Eastern Powerhouse. A partnership born of necessity which over the past 18 months, has grown its membership and brought together business leaders, local authorities, universities and colleges to articulate a pan-regional approach to engage with our local MPs and work with government.


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