5 August 2010

From an external perspective it would seem that the local authority network is focused solely on the forthcoming local enterprise partnership discussions (LEPs) and how it may impact on their control of services.

Since the notice from the government that Regional Development Agencies – and also regional government offices – are to be abolished there has been little talk of anything other than LEPs. Reaction varies from authorities caught like rabbits in headlights awaiting “further guidance” to those who see it as a way to wrest power and control. The government has been specific in that they are seeking views from local areas and will not be issuing more guidance and yet some authorities cling on to the hope of details emerging telling them what they have to do just like a toddler with a comfort blanket. It is very disappointing that officers have become so used to “obeying orders” that many seem to have lost the ability to think for themselves.

At the other end of the spectrum the opportunistic see this as a chance to grab the initiative (and power) and are seeking to overturn the “old order”. I have had so many conversations with officers and members that I am dizzy with the myriad of solutions being touted around.

I am realistic enough to understand that the decisions on what the boundaries may be will be decided by politicians. Businesses have neither the time nor inclination to spend hour after hour arguing over lines on a map.

So what seems to be emerging? At this stage it is clear that upper level authorities see boundaries concurrent with theirs and that it is a chance to wrest more control for themselves. On the whole districts are disgruntled and are seeking different pairings which appear to have greater resonance with the governments vision of local economic areas with a degree of common issues. Worryingly there is little in the way of original thinking and exciting and different ideas being discussed.

In the East of England we suffer from a lack of a regional identity with places like Herrtfordshire having little in common with Norfolk for example. This should be the catalyst for original thinking and LEPs emerging which do not follow simple county lines. For example Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are reliant on each other (even if both authorities refuse to acknowledge that) and have more in common than they do with say Ipswich and Kings Lynn and yet county lines preclude real engagement. Similarly the coastal strip from Kings Lynn to Harwich shares ports to tourism, energy to erosion and would make a very interesting LEP which could be unique – thus increasing the chance of accessing funding. In the other direction a LEP based on Peterborough and including the fens, south lincs, west norfolk and rural cambridgeshire has much to commend it.

So where does business fit in? Somewhere down the line in all honesty. There has been minimal discussion with real businesses with local authorities believing that if they consult with Chambers of Commerce, the IOD and FSB that they have ticked that box. We support – and are members of – each of these organisations but they are not business. We need CEOs and Chairmen of businesses to sit on LEPs if they are to be anything other than talking shops. I even got hold of one internal council document which suggested that despite government instruction that a LEP must have local authority majority or they would be “undemocratic” and power may be ceded to “unaccountable” individuals! I know who I would rather have running my budgets!

This is a great opportunity to shape local plans over the next few years and yet I wonder if I am being too cynical in believing that little will change. I want a strong local economy based on enterprise and cutting through the ridiculous bureaucracy which stops most business people from becoming councillors. I hope that LEPs become local powerhouses for change but based on what I have seen and heard so far my hopes are not that high.

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