LEPs – an opportunity

Posted on 6 Oct 2010 by The Manufacturer

Margaret Wood on why Local Enterprise Partnerships should embrace the business community.

As the MD of a small manufacturing firm who has played key roles in public and private sector partnerships and forums for many years, I know only too well that the wishes of business cannot be ignored if the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are to succeed.

There are currently 56 LEP bids submitted to the Government from throughout the UK. With so little information about how the LEPs will look, sound and feel – let alone what they will deliver – the key to success hinges on the public sector consulting extensively with the private sector in a joint commitment to shape and lead the agenda.

Unfortunately early reports find such cohesion lacking. I was appalled to hear that the East Cornwall branch of the Federation of Small Businesses bemoaned Cornwall Council’s failure to consult with business over plans to form a LEP partnership with the Isles of Scilly.

Equally galling is reading how, in the South-West, Tessa Coombes, director of policy at business representative organisation GWE Business West claiming that politicians ignored the views of the business community who were keen spearhead a LEP for Bristol, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.

Such myopia on the part of the public sector only serves to further fuel negative fires by vociferous (and somewhat hypocritical) critics such as ex-CBI chief Digby Jones who says that LEPs are politically driven, confused in their objectives, too small to work properly and already posses a “local authority mentality”.

I am at a loss to understand why some public sector organisations are failing to harness the commerciality and expertise of SMEs who are the UK’s lifeblood.

For the last two years I’ve been involved in a Leeds City Region public and private sector partnership which has submitted a LEP bid and which has listened to the private sector. It’s their skills needs, we realise, which are critical for us to meet and their challenges which we must overcome. Those challenges include the LEP’s responsibilities to achieve more with less – something which manufacturers have always been adept at and a skill which has become even more valuable over the last two years.

With LEP funding slashed to just 20 per cent of that enjoyed by RDAs at their height, the private sector – along with the voluntary sector, which also has much to bring to the LEP table – are invaluable in helping to maximise and manage such tight resource.

The LEP agenda demands strong leadership along with strategic and commercial ‘nous’ bolstered by a commitment and drive to deliver priorities such as business support; innovation; inward investment; export advice; and access to finance.

LEPs provide us with a dynamic opportunity to forge powerful public and private sector partnerships in which SMEs can take the lead. They can help to inject confidence in today’s extraordinary business climate, and address the emerging sustainability and green economy agenda which will be the catalyst for change during the next decade.

I would also like to see LEPs stimulate the continued growth of social enterprises. Employing more than 650,000 people nationally and contributing over £8 billion annually to the UK economy, they nurture and stimulate entrepreneurialism and employment.

My three year vision is for LEPs to be respected and productive interfaces which are devoid of democracy between the public and private sector. Above all, they must be accountable and transparent.

Such partnerships require innovation and resilience with those on board equipped with the requisite ‘can do’ attitude and skills to create a modern Britain.

Whatever your opinion on the demise of the regional development agencies, one thing is for certain: they are on their way out, and more quickly than most people expected. The vital question for manufacturers is how they can be involved in, and reap the benefits of, LEPs.

LEPs are a vibrant opportunity to be bold and different. Let’s grab the chance and make them work!