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Industrial strategy ‘should give growth powers to councils over LEPs’

Business secretary Greg Clark’s announcement of the much-anticipated UK industrial strategy has created some disagreement from local authority experts.

Specifically, the decision to give local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) primary control over strategic economic planning has been criticised, with some commentators saying it will not provide the growth the government is looking for.

But other policies have been applauded. For example, the LGA has welcomed the strategy’s recognition that future economic plans need to be more geographically balanced.

The strategy outlines proposals to boost productivity in the UK and has been thrust into a greater spotlight with fears growth will become even more central post-Brexit.

In terms of local targets, the document illustrates plans to allow metro mayors to run industrial strategies where possible, similarly to what has been agreed in Greater Manchester, but hands power to LEPs in areas where no mayor is available.

Liam Booth-Smith, chief executive of think tank Localis, argued the use of LEPs in this manner is not going to provide the growth ministers are looking for.

He pointed out that, while some partnerships may be in a good position to help communities benefit with business strategies, others do not have the necessary leadership or resources to work effectively in these areas.

Instead, he suggests councils take the reigns and offer a more democratic and accountable body to control these plans.

“There is no reason councils and LEPs can’t work successfully together,” Booth-Smith explained. “Twenty-three LEPs fit exactly over strategic authorities – existing combined authority or county council areas.

“But the risk is that local industrial strategies will be years in the making. This is time the nation cannot afford when an area’s ability to respond to the combined economic challenges posed by Brexit, automation and low skills levels depends on the raw material of human capital.

“To accelerate the process, those areas without devolution deals – covering more than two-thirds of the country and 36.1 million people – should receive an ‘industrial compact’ allowing them to take full and immediate ownership of a suite of economic and fiscal powers, allowing them to compete globally.”

Similarly, Cllr Phillip Atkins, vice-chairman of the County Councils’ Network (CCN), said the strategy represented a “missed opportunity” and that county authorities should be given more control ahead of LEPs.

He added: “Counties ought to be in the driving seat to lead local industrial strategies – not just LEPs – while investment appears to be city focused.

“County authorities already work closely with their own LEPs, but we have concerns they are not always the most effective bodies to dynamically lead local industrial strategies.

“Counties contain the size to do business nationally and the intimate knowledge of their economies to grow communities locally while offering the democratic transparency that LEPs currently cannot.”

‘Fresh opportunity’ for new relationships

On the other hand, the LGA hailed the localised nature of the plans, saying they provided a “fresh opportunity” for councils and businesses to create new relationships that would benefit residents.

Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s environment, housing and transport spokesman, said: “The review of LEPs is an important opportunity to secure an even stronger partnership between business and public-sector leaders, and as key partners, it is essential that councils across the country play a full part in the review.

“It is encouraging to see the paper state that investment decisions need to be more geographically balanced and include more local voices. There needs to be greater recognition of councils’ wide role in boosting productivity that ranges from civic leadership and plan-making to local infrastructure and public health.”

Tett was not completely positive about the strategy though, questioning the omission of post-Brexit funding plans for authorities who currently receive a high level of European funding.

“Council leaders are committed to working with business leaders to boost productivity and growth, but if we are to play a full part, we quickly need to develop a national regional aid scheme to replace all existing EU regeneration funding and a devolved approach to skills and infrastructure that ensures that every local economy and individual has the potential to prosper,” he explained.

“In particular, it is critical that all new skills initiatives – including the advisory panels and national retraining programme – join up across places, balancing national priorities with the varying needs of our local communities and businesses. Councils’ efforts are essential in bringing this together.”

Top image: Dominic Lipinski PA Wire

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Cllr Peter Hughes   30/11/2017 at 11:09

Where is the scrutiny & accountability??!!

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