By Heather Cameron
Following the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies in 2010, 39 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) were established in England by 2012. Each was designed to represent a functional economic area and steer growth strategically in local communities. These business-led partnerships between the private sector and local authorities are central to government plans for local economic growth.
According to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO), the role and remit of LEPs has expanded both significantly and rapidly but there are concerns over whether they have the capacity and capability to deliver.
Since their inception, LEPs have rapidly developed from new start-up organisations to bidders and delivery managers for substantial amounts of national and European funding initiatives to strategic leaders of their local economies.
Between 2010 and 2015 total central government funding directed through LEPs was approximately £1.5 billion. Through the Local Growth Fund, £12 billion will be available from 2015-16 to 2020-21. Growth Deals were agreed with each of the 39 LEPs in 2014, through which £6.3 billion of the Local Growth Fund was allocated. With a further £1 billion allocated in January 2015, the total to date is £7.3 billion. LEPs estimate that the Growth Deals combined will create up to 419,500 jobs and 224,300 housing units.
On the whole, LEPs have been perceived positively and are well established as the main agencies for promoting local growth.
Development has been anything but uniform, however, with a varied pace of evolution. Considering the differing levels of size, urbanisation, population, and existing infrastructure within the LEPs, this is no surprise.
The most advanced LEPs have been identified as those with a history of collaborative working. Greater Manchester leads the way, having already been given powers over skills, welfare and transport, and to be given new powers over the criminal justice system as announced in the 2016 Budget. Greater Manchester has been working in partnership since the 1980s through its local government association, and formally through its Combined Authority since 2011.
And according to a recent Localis report, including London, there are at least a third of LEPs based in and around urban areas which are or could soon be in a position to take on greater powers, with 2017/18 a feasible timeline for them to assume greater powers.
Despite their rapid development and increased responsibility for substantial amounts of government funding, concerns have been raised over LEPs’ power, resources and accountability.
The NAO report found that only 5% of LEPs agreed that resources available to them are enough to meet government expectations. Additionally, 69% of LEPs reported that they did not have sufficient staff and 28% did not think that they had sufficiently skilled staff.
A survey by the Federation of Small Businesses in 2014 found that: there is a disparity in the levels of funding and capacity across LEPs; a lack of clarity on the remit, purpose and function of LEPs from government has resulted in widespread misunderstanding and friction in practice; and inconsistencies in performance monitoring across LEPs is hampering accountability to local stakeholders and hindering assessment of LEP performance nationally.
Further recent analysis argues that their role and influence are being compromised by a fragmented and changing landscape of economic development governance and the absence of any longer term vision and plan for their evolution.
Given this lack of long term vision and strategy, the fundamental tensions yet to be resolved and their institutional shortfalls and limitations in authority, accountability, capability and resources, the analysis concludes that many LEPs will struggle to exercise substantive influence on economic development at the local level.
Indeed, LEPs reported to the NAO that they were uncertain about their place in the wider devolved landscape. LEPs were also concerned that the government had not made clear their role in economic planning and development as devolution progresses.
Further concerns were raised over funding in terms of pressure to spend their allocation within the year at the risk of not receiving future funding, which could potentially lead to LEPs not funding projects most suited to long-term economic development. And the sustainability of reliance on local authority support at a time of reduced local government funding was another worry.
Going forward, the NAO report recommends that the government:
- clarifies how LEPs fit with other bodies to which it is devolving power and spending
- distributes Local Growth Funding to LEPs in a form that will give them medium to long-term funding flexibility, subject to performance, to reduce risk of funds being spent on projects that LEPs do not regard as offering the best value for money
- sets out specific quantifiable objectives and performance indicators for the success of Growth Deals
- ensures that there is sufficient local capacity within LEPs to deliver Growth Deals by taking a more explicit and consistent account of the financial sustainability of local authority partners
- uses its approach to monitoring Growth Deals as an opportunity to standardise output metrics for future local growth initiatives, allowing for comparative performance assessment and reducing reporting burdens
- tests the implementation of local assurance frameworks before confirming future funding allocations, and works with LEPs to ensure that the required standards of governance and transparency are being met.
Only time will tell whether the government expectation of LEPs to deliver Growth Deals effectively and sustainably will become a reality.
If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous post on innovation districts and sustainable growth
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