Conference season has seen great debate over how local authorities can encourage economic growth. In recent years the Local Enterprise Partnership has taken centre stage as the engine of economic development. However, at this year’s LGiU and Liberal Democrat fringe, the famous LEP was given short shrift. Cllr Keith House, Leader of Eastleigh Council, declared that, ‘to be honest, we wouldn’t notice if LEPs were not there.’
What alternatives does Cllr House suggest? According to the Eastleigh Leader, innovation trumps the LEP. Eastleigh have utilised prudential borrowing to invest in a substantial property portfolio and have encouraged growth of Southampton International Airport in order to boost local growth and create jobs. As a result, Eastleigh has kept council tax below inflation for the past eleven years and has avoided making cuts to services.
Cllr Ruth Dombey, Leader of Sutton Council, highlighted the benefits of encouraging collaboration between local enterprises. A few years ago, Sutton risked becoming a commuter town, offering few opportunities of its own. In 2012 the council launched ‘Opportunity Sutton’. The initiative drew together local businesses and developers. As a result, Marsden Hospital and the Institute for Cancer Research operate closely as a large research site, which has also provided space for a new secondary school that specialises in the life sciences.
‘Opportunity Sutton’ is an example of the kind of leadership local Liberal Democrat authorities are aspiring to. Councils need to communicate ideas between government, enterprises and the public, and subsequently harness any positive responses.
By identifying and building upon the strengths in their own areas, Liberal Democrat Councils are bypassing the LEPs. But, leaders are aware of the need for political collaboration. Developing close working relationships between the various layers of local government authorities can maximise local growth. For example, Cllr House conceded that town councils cannot benefit directly from prudential borrowing, but, borough councils can always borrow the money in their place, and pass on the capital.
Liberal Democrat Councils are working hard to encourage local growth, and are pursuing an interesting array of initiatives. Though will dismissing the LEP prove risky business?