The Secrets of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – Updated

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By Charmian Spickernell
24th July 2020

How many people know about Devolution and Local Economic Partnerships, or LEPs as they are called?

Devolution – devolving power and money to local areas sounds good but then the question arises about how?  It seems that devolution is mainly to elected mayors, larger councils and LEPs.

Local District Councils gave way to a unitary council for Wiltshire a few years ago.  Now there is a move for Wiltshire and Swindon to become one Council.  Already there is one body where they are working together.  It is the Swindon and Wiltshire LEP, known as SWLEP, where the Leaders of both Councils and one other Councillor from each Council together with representatives from the business community, education and the army make up the Board.   This Board has an informative web-site, here: SWLEP) its own officers and support from officers of both councils. The bi-monthly meetings move round the County and are efficient, with time for questions.

There have been several changes since LEPs were first created in 2010 as a replacement of the regional bodies. Originally they had varied corporate structures.  Now they have assurance frameworks, They are organisations through which the government channels significant amounts of money for schemes such as infrastructure “to unlock development” and skills training.

What is funded through LEPs?

There is competition with other LEPs as each one has to bid for funding. So far SWLEP has bid successfully for match funding for improvements to the A350 round Chippenham, improvements to M4 Junction 16, and infrastructure needed to bring forward development east of the A419. Still to come are highly controversial funding schemes for the A350 south of Chippenham. The most recent bid was mainly for education and skills resulting in improvements to the three Wiltshire Colleges.

What are the problems?

When Government and EU money began to flow through LEPs, was it the answer for wish lists? There may now be a move to think more strategically as robust cases have to be put forward in order to bid successfully. However, Council representatives still seem to have a strong voice and more questions from the public could alert the business members to the need to address wider concerns.

LEPs have been secretive. SWLEP is beginning to make major efforts to make people more aware of what they do. Their role is to improve the economy so they have to concentrate on that but intelligence dictates that they need to be aware of social and environmental problems as well.

One problem is how to ensure devolution does not mean taking decisions further away from the public and their elected representatives.

Another is the tick box exercise that is gone through when establishing a business case for a scheme. For one scheme, the question of whether it could be made to work was “brushed off”. It remains to be seen whether in fact it does work or whether it just creates another bottleneck.

Another is what will happen to the flow of money when Brexit happens?

What are the solutions?

The Government wishes to promote businesses to provide jobs and help the economy generally. Their perception is that collaboration between the democratically elected and business is right. One of the hurdles to be overcome is the thought that there may be too close a relationship between public and private business; supporting business with public funding is generally acknowledged to be a sensitive area. The solution may lie in the public becoming involved in LEP choice of schemes. Not everything can be funded at once and which schemes will be prioritised? Circumstances change. Are any changes needed? Which is best value for money? We are fortunate to have SWLEP which is welcoming and well run.

So far very few members of the public come to the meetings and ask questions. They may have been put off in the early days of SWLEP when many groups asked for the re-opening of rail stations and no notice was taken of their requests. Even in May 2017, a representative for South West Rail attended a meeting having had an early start in order to arrive by public transport but no opportunity was given him to speak. Is there beginning to be recognition that the way to relieve congestion is to have better public transport?

Democracy is a responsibility and can be hard work. If you want to know what might be going to happen in your area, seeing what SWLEP is working on may give a clue.

Where will major development go after 2026?

You might pick up information at the meetings. The Agendas are on the website a week before the meeting and questions should be sent in in advance. Officers make great efforts to answer them and a further question can be asked at the meeting. Public involvement is one of the means of achieving the best solutions and sound planning.

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