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15.04.14

LEPs’ planning role ‘still unclear’

Source: Public Sector Executive April/May 2014

Dr Lee Pugalis, reader in entrepreneurship at Northumbria University, talks about his latest research on local enterprise partnerships and their role in strategic planning. 

Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) have an important strategic role to play in supporting investment confidence and championing economic growth, but their role with regards to planning remains unclear.

This was one of the conclusions from a new interim report – ‘Planning for Growth: The Role of Local Enterprise Partnerships in England’ – commissioned by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

Conducted by RTPI members Dr Lee Pugalis, reader in entrepreneurship at Northumbria University, and Professor Alan Townsend in the department of geography at Durham University, the study also revealed that LEPs “have played a significant role as consultees
for the government’s growth agenda, particularly in brokering the selection of sites for Enterprise Zones”.

But there are “inherent problems” with the present governance and composition of LEPs. This cautionary note points towards the limitations of LEPs with regards to a statutory planning role, because of their voluntary nature and their non-elected constitution.

Localism

The research also examines the role of LEPs and questions whether the localism agenda is in danger of undermining LEPs’  ability to
 ‘plan for growth’.

Speaking to PSE, Dr Pugalis said: “Localism in political discourse is so seductive, because who would be against localism? It does sound very appealing.

“However, there are a lot of different policy areas – such as planning and economic development, in particular – where, when you start looking at some of the detailed policies and mechanics and the initiatives they are involved in, there are a lot of tensions with regards to what is often labelled localism.”

LEPs do not have statutory powers, Dr Pugalis said, and there is no broad brush approach to saying what will work best for all LEPs in England, in terms of the localism agenda.

“We have 39 LEPs in the country, each of them with different visions and priorities,” he said. “There is a lot of overlap and similar themes, of course, about growing the economy, but LEPs have to be given the right tools to deliver and implement their local priorities.”

Strategic Economic Plans

LEPs are meant to encourage enterprise and boost private sector led growth. Their roles, remit and governance are also continuing to evolve, and currently the government is in the process of receiving Strategic Economic Plans from each partnership as part of negotiating Growth Deals, making this a critical time in their development.

Dr Pugalis said: “With regards to strategic planning, it is important to differentiate between statutory forms of planning and strategic economic planning. The latter helps establish a strategic economic vision for the LEP areas, but in statutory planning terms
they are not part of the formal planning system. So they will be a material consideration and you would expect local authorities to pay consideration to the plans. However, the systems do not perfectly align at the moment, making things unclear.”

Functions

He added that if the direction of travel continues – where government is going to prescribe a particular planning role for LEPs – then what the report has identified so far is a typology of different functions.

For instance, there are LEPs providing the business perspective/voice – intended to inform and shape policies, decisions and  funding; lobbying LEPs – intended to influence policies, decisions and funding (as for major central  government transport projects);
and spatial visioning LEPs – intended to provide the  strategic context for statutory local plans, to align strategic economic priorities and guide infrastructure delivery.

“These planning functions dispensed by LEPs are unlikely in any case to be uniform and could be marginalised by some LEPs if they opt to concentrate on a narrow economic growth agenda,” said Dr Pugalis. “If we had a change of government this could also affect LEPs, as a new government may give LEPs a statutory role, making them more directive than permissive.”

Dr Michael Harris, deputy head of policy and research at the RTPI, said there is clear evidence that some decisions are best made at the larger-than-local level.

So how do we undertake strategic planning effectively to support economic growth objectives as well as sustainable development principles?

Aspirations for the future

Although this interim research doesn’t provide all the answers, it has reenergised the debate about LEPs and their role.

It is not so much making the argument as to whether LEPs should be involved or not, said Dr Pugalis – it is more about making the case that in England, without a national spatial strategy and no regional strategy, there is a “sub-national strategic deficit”.

The researchers will now conduct a detailed content analysis of the 39 LEPs. They will also be looking at LEPs’ objectives, goals and aspirations with regards to planning matters. The final report, due in May, will help in assessing the nature of LEP planning activities and the  implications of Strategic Economic Plans.

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