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Oi Labour – leave those Leps alone!

John-HoughtonThe Smith Institute’s recent report Making local economies matter should be seen as the Labour Party’s statement of intent with regard to local economic development and the future of Leps in particular.

The report is the work of John Healey MP and Les Newby, with a foreword by the Brownite – Blairite combo of Ed Balls MP and Lord Andrew Adonis.

The core message of the report is simple.

Labour won’t go back to the good old days of doing economic development at the regional level, through state-appointed quangos. Though the report is broadly positive about the RDAs’ track record. In great contrast to Jackie Sadek’s blog which details how ‘for every one person who was actually doing something, there were six or seven monitoring or evaluating, writing reports and generally getting in the way.’

Nor will Labour abolish Leps, the coalition’s localised replacement for the RDAs. Indeed, the report calls for a ‘radical and accelerated devolution of powers to Leps to deal with the widening economic divide.’

But there’s a catch. Under a future Labour government, Leps would be fewer in number, larger in size, better funded and held to a higher standard of accountability.

Hmm, that sounds a lot like the RDAs… you may be thinking. Even setting aside this suspicion, the proposals would fundamentally weaken the gradually evolving Lep infrastructure. They would further tighten the ‘firm hand of central control’ that the report claims it opposes.

We rely far too much in this country on organisational changes in response to social and economic problems. Our ridiculously over-centralised system gives ministers far too much power to create, reform and abolish organisations when they need to do something, or at least appear to be doing something, in response to a problem.

Where there are problems with Leps, government should do no more

than help local partners to fix those problems for themselves.

I’ve worked with many organisations, including some central government departments, which are in a constant state of flux. Not in a creative, sparky way – in a constantly churning like socks in the washing machine way.

Teams and entire divisions work through the last top-down-structure, before embarking on the next. Nobody can get really good at anything because they are constantly changing titles and roles. There is no institutional memory.

As a result, central government’s dominance is further reinforced.

The temptation to re-organise under Labour governments is often led by the instinct, articulated in the report, to tidy up a ‘fragmented and somewhat messy picture’. Mess equals waste, the report argues. Yet governments waste a hell of a lot more cash and money in pursuit of an illusory order and perfect organisational tessellation.

The end of the review of Leps proposed in the report is the creation of ‘a smaller number of larger and more effective Leps’. In my experience, organisations very rarely become ‘larger’ and ‘more effective’, especially with regard to local activity.

There does need to be some higher level of accountability for the Leps and some of the boundaries do seem arbitrary, but that shouldn’t matter. The smart ones will work across their spatial/organisational boundaries with other Leps to focus on functional economic areas.

Where there are problems with Leps, government should do no more than help local partners to fix those problems for themselves, coming up with local solutions, creating a market place of ideas. These fixes would hold faster than the enforced outcome of a top-down reorganisation.

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Michael Heaslip
Michael Heaslip
9 years ago

Yes, indeed, the smart ones will work across their spatial/organisational boundaries with other Leps to focus on functional economic areas. And true, organisations very rarely become ‘larger’ and ‘more effective’, especially with regard to local activity. But ‘functional economic areas’ ain’t necessarily larger than Lep areas. They can be smaller, and outside the great conurbations they often are. The question for those of us in the industrial towns locked into Ted Heath’s dysfunctional two-tier local government system is: are the ‘county Leps’ (set up for administrative convenience rather than a commitment to ‘markets not municipalities’) smart enough and flexible enough to recognise that they may contain distinct functional economic areas within their county geography, and plan accordingly. The evidence so far is that they aren’t and can’t.

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