LEPs need to do more for England's countryside

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2018

Paul Miner, head of strategic plans and devolution at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), highlights the findings of a recent survey which show that local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) need to become more sensitive to the needs of rural communities.

LEPs are business-led partnerships between the private and public sectors, designed to support and promote growth in economic areas defined by local business interests and local government, and agreed with central government.

There are currently 38 LEPs in England, which vary in geographical and economic, social and environmental impact. All LEP boards are chaired by a senior business figure and at least half (and often more) of the boards consist of people from the business sector, with the balance coming from local government and few, if any, members from environmental groups or other NGOs.

LEPs matter because they are gaining increasing responsibilities for public spending on regional development across England. Over the period from 2014 to 2020 they are being given, in total, £6.5bn of European funding and £7.2bn across three successive rounds of Growth Deals concluded with the UK Government. Per individual LEP, the allocation of these funds varies from £150m for Cumbria to £1.07bn for Greater Manchester.

The European element of the funding partly covers rural development, and LEPs are also encouraged to work closely with Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) on delivering environmental improvement. But great concerns have been raised about the failure of LEPs to take rural and countryside issues into account, as well as their governance, transparency, and accountability.

In order to find out more about the impact on the countryside and regeneration, CPRE surveyed its local groups during 2017. A total of 44 responses were received from 34 branches, covering 32 out of the 38 LEPs. The findings suggest that most LEPs are ignoring the economic potential, social needs and environmental quality of rural communities. We also have particular concerns that LEPs take little interest in affordable and/or sustainable transport options, preferring instead to promote damaging and expensive road building schemes.

On rural and countryside policy issues, there is a clear feeling (60% of responses) that LEPs are having a negative impact. Many partnerships appear to lack a rural reach and need to do more to address this deficiency. Coverage of environmental and social issues is inconsistent: we are aware of only 50% working with their equivalent LNP, only 21% on rural affordable housing, and just 14% on rural transport.

Potential examples of good practice, however, include the Coast to Capital, Enterprise M3, and Greater Lincolnshire LEPs. In particular, LEPs in the south west set up a Rural Productivity Commission, which has come up with a number of exciting ideas for investing in affordable housing, small farmers, and natural and cultural heritage.

LEPs may also be serving to reinforce inequalities within and between English regions rather than addressing them. Of the investment areas that CPRE’s local representatives were aware of, it was three times more likely to be in a buoyant area than one in particular social need. Some LEPs are clearly investing in regenerating deprived communities, although this may only be due to the current requirements of the European element of their funding. Examples of these include the Cornwall, Derby and Nottingham, Enterprise M3, Lancashire, and Solent LEPs. LEP responsibility in this area is expected to grow with the preparation of local industrial strategies and the introduction of the Shared Prosperity Fund, so it will become critical for the LEP movement as a whole to take the lead in helping to address inequality within and between England’s regions.

Rural businesses, including small farms, account for almost a quarter of all registered businesses in England – their importance to our economy cannot be understated. In order to create thriving rural economies and help safeguard our countryside, we need LEPs to become more sensitive to the needs of rural communities, businesses and economies than the regional development agencies they replaced.


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