/ News / More Than Just A Business Sounding Board

Sarah Kemp, Chief Executive of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership, believes hardwiring LEPs into devolved local government structures will add significant value beyond just being a private sector ‘sense-check’      

As many of you maybe aware, the government’s Levelling Up White Paper, and recent letter to all Local Enterprise Partnerships, has outlined the role LEPs are set to play within newly devolved local government structures.

What comes through loud and clear in both documents, which are also described as being the conclusion to the government’s recent LEP review, is that government genuinely values the contribution that LEPs have made over the last ten years, and the importance of our private sector expertise going forward.

The letter also outlines the “strong, independent and diverse business voice” which LEPs will bring to future devolved local government structures, the commercial ‘‘checks and challenges” we are set to provide, and how LEPs should be consulted on projects with an “economic purpose”.

As the Chief Executive of a LEP which is on a Pathway II trajectory – meaning there is no immediate devolution deal on the horizon – there is much to be welcomed in the government’s proposals, including the recommendation that existing LEP boards become semi-autonomous business boards within future devolved institutions.

But with LEPs like Lancashire, which have years of experience applying business expertise to both regional economic strategy and key investment decision-making, I feel it would be a huge, missed opportunity if our function becomes thought of as a box-ticking business ‘sense check’, rather than as a valued strategic partner.

Other aspects of the government’s guidance also raises some causes for concern, especially around the lack of clarity regarding our role in supporting future bids for funding. On this point, the guidance suggests that Local Leaders may “wish to consult” with LEPs on funding bids from pots such as the Social Prosperity Fund and Levelling Up Fund, where projects “have an economic purpose”.

This again could be a missed opportunity, as LEPs such as Lancashire have not only secured extensive funding for explicitly commercial ventures, but have also successfully bid for significant grants which support major housing, transport, health, environmental, cultural and educational programmes.

In fact, over the last decade, we have been successful in securing of over £1.5bn of public and private investment to support transformational projects across Lancashire which have done far more than simply help generate an economic return.

For example, our work across the skills agenda is as much to do with social mobility as it is to do with creating a talent pipeline for local employers, and our investments in new transport links has helped to unlock land for thousands of new homes and recreational spaces, as well as new business units.

And in a place like Lancashire, where the backbone of the economy is SMEs, micro-businesses and sole traders, the work we do to support local businesses is often actually about supporting individuals, the wellbeing of themselves and their families, and the wider communities they are part of.

This was brought into sharp focus during the pandemic, and through our work with Lancashire’s Growth Hub, our Skills & Employment Hub, and through the LEP’s own business-led Sector Groups, we developed and implemented a raft of support programmes, emergency grants, recovery strategies – and other frontline interventions – which resulted in immediate and tangible benefits for many residents.

Of course, these more holistic, social value impacts are not delivered by working alone, and ability of LEPs to convene different partners from across the private and public sectors to enable positive change, both economically and socially, is another key strength we bring to the table.

Further, LEP board members have a wealth of expertise and insights which go far beyond just managing a business’ balance sheet, and the time they give (voluntarily) to actively support, promote and improve the region they call home is something we should all seek to value and maximise, rather than downgrade, in the future.

So, to reiterate, while I warmly welcome the government’s public recognition of the value that LEPs like ours offers, and the clarity we now have surrounding the important role we are set to play in the post-devolution local government landscape, I would encourage all parties to really think about how we utilise all of the skills, experience and networks which LEPs across the country have built up over the last ten years.

In other words, when the government says in its letter it intends to ‘re-wire’ local government to make it fit for purpose, let’s ensure the positive power of LEPs is hardwired into the process.

This article originally appeared on Local Government Chronicle (04.05.22)

Read next LEP CEO Sarah Kemp Appointed Pro-Vice Chancellor At Lancaster University