Most Local Enterprise Partnerships have been around for 12-18 months, so it’s timely to take a look at how things are going.
It’s worth remembering that England’s economic development jungle is a new place and LEPs are very different beasts from regional development agencies. In fact, if RDAs were ‘beasts’, then LEPs would be everything from mosquitoes to lion cubs.
LEPs and RDAs have very little in common other than being TLAs (three letter acronyms). RDAs were created with staff and budgets on a scale never seen before in the UK. And over ten years their remit and resources grew inexorably. Whatever the successes (and there were many) or failings (and there were many) of RDAs, they were broadly similar, whether you were in the South West or the North East. Not so with LEPs.
All LEPs were created equal… but they're evolving into dramatically different entities. Many are struggling to get to grips with the realities of having lots of priorities but no money or staff; while others have tapped new sources of funds and are piecing together quite large staffing structures.
Look at what’s just happened in Liverpool. As from today, The Mersey Partnership, one of the UK’s most significant economic development bodies has morphed into the LCRLEP (it’s not clear how this will be pronounced, either in scouse or English... maybe ‘Lycra-LEP’?). This move has not been without its problems, but has created an organisation of 52 people overnight to become the largest LEP staff by quite some distance.
Other city-regions seem to be motoring along with the LEP taking more of a back-seat, and the delivery being done by existing economic development bodies. In Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham, inward investment teams are moving forward, seemingly unencumbered by LEP issues. While in Leeds, Sheffield and many other areas, the inward investment structures and LEP relationships need to be made clearer.
To put the lumpiness of the new landscape into perspective, two recent tenders in the West Midlands show a very different picture emerging. Business Birmingham is looking to spend £175,000 on PR for inward investment over two years; while next door, Worcestershire LEP is also looking for PR support and is looking to spend £7,000 a year. Or look at MIPIM, the much-loved/hated (delete as appropriate) property show. Some English cities had high profile presence, with private sector partners picking up the tab; while others sheepishly stayed away.
To a degree, the lumps reflect local ambitions. All LEPs had ‘attracting jobs and investment’ at the heart of their proposals, but those that are serious about this, will find a way to deliver. A host of funding possibilities are open, not just RGF bids and LEP Capacity Fund, but innovative funding cocktails, not least the potential to leverage private sector resources. The money is out there, it’s just a question of priorities.
While the diverse local picture can be seen as healthy localism, for potential inward investors, who don't care about the politics and personalities that are driving/stalling LEP progress, all they want is clarity. Clarity over who to speak to and clarity about what the location can offer.
In that respect, nothing's changed.