Viewpoint: Six weeks to save local economic growth…

OK – now I’ve got your attention, I admit the headline is slightly OTT. But, I promise readers, this is less far-fetched and more grounded than most of the ‘fake news’ and hysterical banners with which we are daily assailed from national politicians and their preferred media platforms, says David Marlow.

As my policy briefing (members only) outlines in greater detail, on the eve of the Parliamentary Recess the government published its ‘Strengthened LEPs’ review.

The review makes specific proposals that require LEPs to become more robust and accountable in the appointment and performance of LEP Boards; to strengthen their institutional form, leadership and governance processes; and to discharge primary roles in formulation of Local Industrial Strategies. It also asks for proposals by 28 September to remove overlapping LEP boundaries; and outlines new, more explicit, relationships with Mayoral Combined Authorities.

None of the proposals, singly, are either ridiculous or perverse. However, taken as a whole, they amount to a seemingly massive strengthening of central government prescription and oversight of local growth systems – largely at the expense of local authorities. LEPs independence from their local authority members is reinforced in both mayoral combined authorities and non-mayoral areas.

Concurrently the review lobs in a grenade – the exercise to present proposals to redraw the local growth maps of much of England. The more non-consensual the local submissions are, the more the government could redraw the map based on their political whims.

Of course, there is a debate to be had on economic geography issues raised by the review – dual LEP membership; how coterminous boundaries should be with MCAs; and the optimum scale of intermediate tier LEPs. The government took eight months to produce their diktats. The requirement that local areas resolve these issues in two months over parliament’s summer recess is as disrespectful of LEPs and local authorities as it could be without just imposing central solutions.

It should be remembered that overlapping LEPs are the norm, not the exception. Of 38 remaining LEPs, 19 (50%) have overlapping boundaries. This increases to 22 if the government want MCAs to be coterminous with their LEP.

Nor is deconstructing overlapping LEPs merely a map-drawing exercise. LEPs run programmes on behalf of the whole of their geographies, including EU funding. Commitments have been made in dual-member areas. Enterprise Zones, Growing Places Funds, and other loan/equity programme receipts and repayments belong to the whole geography – and may be complicated to deconstruct.

Thirdly, the review does repeatedly suggest mergers to scale up effectiveness and better fit strategic functional economic areas. It speaks favourably of the South East Midlands/Northamptonshire merger. This created a LEP of two million people and a GVA economy of over £50bn. If this is the sort of scale the government considers effective for LIS and productivity improvement, they would welcome many mergers.

Finally, the deconstruction exercise may be conflated with local government reform in two tier areas. Most LEP dual members are districts whose economic success is not optimised on county council boundaries. For districts cutting off or emasculating districts from their city regions and its leadership could arguably lower growth and prosperity both of the city region and of England as a whole.

There is much more on this and related issues in the briefing.

Of course, I don’t genuinely believe there are only “six weeks to save local growth”. But I do passionately believe in strategic local leadership in this crucial area of local authority work with our partners. And well-founded, distinctive Local Industrial Strategies, impending Shared Prosperity Fund programmes, and other place-based interventions, must be formulated and delivery-managed on a whole-system basis for sensible economic geographies.

My advice to local government as a sector is to eschew territorial defensiveness, competitiveness, and arbitrary centrally-imposed deadlines. This is playing into the government’s hands.

We do need a comprehensive redesign of England’s sub-national and local growth systems as we move through the existential shocks of 2019 and beyond. Let’s do these pieces of work seriously, creatively, and collaboratively. And let’s require the government to give us the same length of time as it took them to publish their centralist vision for ‘Strengthened LEPs’ – so eight months to March 2019.

Any takers?

David Marlow is an LGiU associate.