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Putting the local into LEPs

Karen Leach reveals what proposals from local enterprise partnerships in the west midlands tell us about their priorities

Community-scale economic power, local production and resource management are central concepts in sustainable development. Ignoring these leaves the country lacking in economic diversity, locally impoverished, unimaginative and vulnerable to global economic change.

Mindful of a historic Birmingham tendency to equate ‘big’ with ‘strategic’, and ignore the combined potential and distinctiveness of the small scale (picked up more tactfully by Sir Michael Lyons in recent city plans), Localise West Midlands has examined how our region’s six LEPs propose to support local economic renewal and sustainable development, assessing the original proposals against a set of localisation indicators. LEPs are still developing beyond their original proposals – but the study is intended to identify early weaknesses in aspiration and encourage them to be addressed in practice.

Birmingham LEP pleasantly surprised us with a proposal full of policies and measures to support small business, including a ‘duty to SME-proof all decisions’, harnessing public and corporate procurement for local supply chains, and a wealth of decentralised energy proposals serving local markets.

However, none of the LEPs had strategies to identify and address the real needs of small business in developing resilience to economic centralisation – for example, on planning, tax and regulatory issues, and enterprise and supply chain development around local markets. The emphasis was on fostering enterprise ‘culture’ and business advice. Important though these are, without strategies that target the ‘external’ causes of business failure (as opposed to poor management), LEP strategies could just help people to set up and then lose new businesses in an environment mainly geared up for economic centralisation.

Despite Stoke and Worcestershire LEPs’ recognition of energy security’s importance in the future economy, there were no measures to reduce product, service and commuter mileage; nor to capitalise on local resource reuse potential and industrial symbiosis. All except Birmingham were weak on measures to develop decentralised energy sectors. None prioritised food production and agriculture.

Only Birmingham, Worcestershire and Stoke LEPs identified areas of deprivation, with very little strategy for targeting them. Promoting this is a role for public sector input into LEPs, given public sector objectives of shared prosperity and wellbeing. Only Birmingham and Worcestershire identified specific measures on social enterprise; all LEPs were poor on the economic potential of community ownership of assets, enterprise and services.

Black Country, Coventry, Birmingham and Worcestershire LEPs proposed innovative measures to harness local financing for small local enterprise, such as the use of council pension funds (Worcestershire) and Investbx (Birmingham).

LEP proposals showed some good practice on linking public and corporate procurement into local supply chains. Birmingham identified both Jaguar-Landrover and public sector spend for this; others proposed procurement access measures such as portals and compacts.

A potential pitfall is that even with the best LEP proposals, commitments to large infrastructure projects (Birmingham’s airport expansion, high speed rail) could divert attention and resources away from measures to support a strong local economy. The balance is crucial. We hope LEPs will deliver against the full spectrum of their aspirations, using objective analysis to inform priorities.

Finally diversity of board representation and other engagement varied enormously between LEPs at this stage, though many now have published their official board memberships. Most were poor on SME and voluntary sector representation: the latter bring a public interest and community benefit perspective to economic decision-making. Stoke’s shadow board was poor on economic diversity – only large businesses representing the private sector, and no clear routes of input for SMEs, higher education or voluntary sector. Worcestershire had strong diversity of direct and secondary representation into LEP decision-making. Birmingham’s shadow board was good, including early engagement with the local voluntary services council; but its confirmed board looks less diverse (also, it has been noted, in gender terms. No women?!).

Time moves on; Regional Growth Fund bids, representative boards and other LEP activities are emerging with strengths and weaknesses against these indicators. LEPs can contribute to vitality, resilience and better lives – sustainable development – if they grasp this opportunity to rebalance the UK economy.

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