I beg to move that this House has considered the status of local enterprise partnerships.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I thank everyone for attending the debate.
I am delighted to have secured this afternoon’s debate at such a critical time for Local Enterprise Partnerships when strategic, business led local economic growth remains in rather a state of suspended animation following the LEP Review.
In East Sussex, we have been well served by Local Enterprise Partnerships over the past 10 years and I am delighted that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up recognised that and affirmed the vital role LEPs can continue to play in the recent Levelling Up White Paper. It would have been all too easy to look for a headline and announce the creation of successor bodies – so I congratulate the Rt. Hon Member for Surrey Heath for the leadership and common sense he has shown on this issue.
That said, the sector is currently in limbo as it awaits clarity on its future role and critically confirmation of the funding it needs to fulfil that role.
This is creating an inability to plan, and the continued uncertainty is seeing some of our most talented people leave LEPs. This is also impacting on our business leaders who give their time and experience in support of their local areas and these business leaders won’t stay at the table for long if this uncertainty continues or they don’t feel valued.
It is six weeks to the day that the Levelling Up White Paper was published, and Local Enterprise Partnerships have very much welcomed its conclusions.
The value of LEPs is based on an array of evidence of their impact of across the country and a visit to any of their websites or social media platforms will demonstrate the huge amount of work underway.
Only last week my honourable friend the Minister for the Digital Economy was in Hull to launch the latest LEP Local Digital Skills Partnership, which is equipping people across Hull and East Yorkshire with the skills needed to support the region’s digital jobs boom and ensure more residents can benefit from the thriving local tech sector.
LEPs are also home to and work closely with world leading sector champions too. From Creative Industries, Cyber and Net zero, through to defence and space: LEPs are already bringing critical clusters together to support innovation and turbo charge their growth.
In R&D and Innovation LEPs are making ground-breaking advances based on hi-tech economic clusters. LEPs are demonstrating their value crystal clear - whether it’s cell and gene therapy in Hertfordshire, the first test flight of a hybrid electric aircraft in the South West, developing new agri-tech systems in the Midlands, strengthening cyber security technology in Gloucestershire, automation and robotics in Oxfordshire, or building new supply lines for future Electric Vehicles in Coventry. Some of the largest standout examples are driven by LEPs and this was cited in the White Paper too.
In my own beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye, SELEP has had a major impact due to its ability to convene partners, build strong relationships, and help put the required structures and processes in place to help local businesses thrive.
Turning to skills, LEPs have significant success in this sector, particularly through Skills Advisory Panels (SAPs). Business feeds directly into this SAP data and relies on the cross co-operation and capacity of LEPs to gather and deliver this level of information at scale, no other organisation is doing this locally and it connects directly with the aims of the Government’s proposed Unit for Future Skills.
LEPs also co-fund the Career and Enterprise Company’s Enterpriser Advisor network, which has brought nearly 3,000 business volunteers into schools to support and stimulate vital career choices for students. It’s the convening role of LEPs that has boosted the benefits, scale and reach of this CEC partnership and enabled more business stakeholders to connect directly with their local schools.
Furthermore, LEPs are working in cross-partnership to deliver solid results for their Skills Bootcamps and Institutes of Technology – addressing skills needed in green technology, HGV and logistics sector, digital, advanced manufacturing, and construction sectors. Again, this helps deliver on another White Paper ambition to resolve “acute national and local skill shortages”.
Only last week, the Higher Education Commission launched its latest report on Innovation again highlighting the central role LEPs can play in driving innovation across our regions.
More broadly, Local Enterprise Partnerships have played a critical role in supporting our local SMEs through the pandemic and recovery too.
In the last year alone 1.6 million businesses turned to their local LEP Growth Hub for advice and support. During the most challenging times of the pandemic, LEPs designed and delivered over 100 local initiatives targeting help and support to give local businesses the best chance to survive. They played a similar role in preparation for exiting the EU and are now looking at how global challenges are impacting on local business. The intel is fed into central government on a weekly basis providing real time data and insight.
LEPs have shown it, and the White Paper confirms it, and I am confident from my discussions with my local LEP and those across the country that they have a unique role to play in the future.
However, the LEP structure of regional collaboration with public and private organisations and individuals with a unique focus on improving local economic growth is now potentially under threat as six weeks on, LEPs still have no confirmation of their future role nor, more critically, how or whether they will be funded to fulfil that role – hence I am here today to ask the Minister for clarity on this important issue.
Turning the warm words of the White Paper into tangible policy and action is now a matter of urgency.
In conclusion, I would welcome the Minister’s consideration of the following points:
- The government must clearly define and establish the future functions of LEPs and must make them clear to all parties. If the functions are not clear, or no obligation to consulting them is made, then any meaningful role will simply be lost to posterity in future structures.
- It’s vital the local independent business voice of LEPs is safeguarded for it to be engaged in local economic planning and decision making, and that their local government partners recognise this. Over 2,000 local business leaders offer their time and expertise with LEPs to support their local economies. They are an asset we cannot afford to lose. Involving that local voice in devolution agreements will help keep business around the table. The private sector expertise and investment has many regional benefits and we need to encourage a culture of enterprise and engagement.
- We need to recognise that LEPs’ business acumen is already helping identify and drive some of the biggest ground-breaking economic clusters in the country, generating jobs and pulling in more private sector leverage than public finance alone. In one example, the LEP’s brokering capability generating an investment ratio of 12:1 for a local sector cluster, and that’s still increasing. That capability, at minimal cost to the public purse, could simply disappear if we do not clearly establish their function now. It is not about the amount of capital pots allocated that counts, but LEPs having the ability to influence how that capital is spent.
- The journey to devolution for many could be a lengthy one, the White Paper suggests this is a decade long ambition – some suggest even longer. In some areas, there may be no greater appetite for Mayors or County Deals than what we currently see. The focus on immediate Mayoral Combines Authorities reflects only c32% of all areas – approx. 68% of LEPs are NOT covered by MCAs. (26 out of 38).
LEPs currently rely on European funding and support skills and deliver projects and will therefore need to access the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to do the same as the vast majority will not be in Mayoral Combined Authority areas. So, the ultimate question has to be identifying the functions and pathways for those LEPs outside MCAs.
Through their unique collaboration and local business voice, LEPs broker investments that deliver the jobs, environment, and local taxes that local communities need and depend on.
What is now vital is to ensure that LEPs have the teeth and funding so that they can continue to develop the opportunities that play such a significant part in levelling up the entire country, from North to South and East to West.