Local Enterprise Partnerships were designed to have two major advantages over the cumbersome bodies they replaced.
The first is that they were smaller, instead of covering massive artificial “regions” of England.
The second is that they were explicitly designed to be partnerships between city councils, democratically accountable to local residents, and the business community.
It was a good idea and in Birmingham it seems to be working.
Although the Government has offered to negotiate deals with England’s big cities, Birmingham has opted instead to negotiate through the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), allowing councils and businesses organisations in no fewer than nine local authorities to get involved.
This isn’t an act of charity. Birmingham realises that the challenges it faces, and the opportunities it hopes to take advantage off, cross local authority boundaries. It will achieve more by working with neighbouring authorities than it would alone.
But the LEP has helped to make that co-operation possible. It has also helped to ensure the ambitious proposals for a “city deal” reflect the needs of employers, as well as having the support of local authorities
The bid document submitted to the government, which we report on in some detail today, is the starting point for negotiations with the government. Common sense suggests that it’s unlikely that the LEP will get everything it has asked for.
But it’s a credible and bold set of proposals, and seems to illustrate that the LEP model can work.
What a contrast with the situation in Coventry and Warwickshire, where attempts to forge a good relationship between the business community and local authorities have come to a very different conclusion.
A battle over who should take responsibility for local transport has split the partnership, with the business community on one side and councils, or at least Coventry City Council, on the other.
While funding for economic development and transport is designed to largely to grow the local economy, and in a sense to help employers succeed, it is taxpayers’ money. Responsibility for it ultimately lies with elected politicians, either at local or national level.
Having said that, politicians with half a brain will recognise that the best way of ensuring funding is put to good use is to listen to the business community and, even better, to let them take ownership of the relevant policies to an extent. Firms will give up their time and dedicate precious resources to helping draw up viable economic development or transport plans to benefit the entire local community – if they believe they are going to be listened to.
In Coventry, the perception, at least, is that the council doesn’t want to listen. It’s up to the local authority to prove the doubters wrong.