A row between the public and private sectors over transport policy is behind the unexpected resignation of Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership’s chairman.
Mystery surrounded the decision by Denys Shortt, founder of Stratford-based DCS Europe, to stand down from the top job at the LEP this week, 18 months into the two-year role.
However, the Post understands Mr Shortt’s departure came after a dispute with members of the board from Coventry City Council over transport planning.
The Government has given LEPs the opportunity to vote over whether the partnerships or local authorities should control transport plans, and after the LEP board voted to take control a divide was created with the higher echelons of the city council, as well as Warwickshire County Council.
Members of the LEP groups and a board member say the city council has sought to take control of policy and is working against the spirit of the partnerships, which were created by the coalition government to put businesses at the heart of generating economic growth.
They are also concerned about plans to recruit a new chair of the board, and say it is crucial that the process is transparent.
Board member Craig Humphrey, the leader of Rugby Borough Council, said he voted for the LEP to take control of transport matters.
He added: “The public sector needs to wake up because without private sector investment the economy of Coventry and Warwickshire will disintegrate.
“I see the best opportunity to create jobs is to work with the private sector, not to rub up against them.”
He added: “It is quite apparent that when we had the launch of the local enterprise partnership that the leader of Coventry City Council was opposed to LEPs.
“It is right to say that Denys has moved the LEP forward to a good place.”
It is understood that Mr Shortt stood down after feeling that pressure was being placed upon him from senior city council executives.
While LEPs are being given more power through the Government, they have little funding and rely on local authorities to offer administration support as a result.
The disagreement broke out after a vote over local transport bodies, a policy brought in by the Department for Transport to involve both local enterprise partnerships and local authorities in the delivery of prioritised transport schemes from 2015 onwards.
The LEP board voted to take control of the bodies, which play a major role on capital funding decision for schemes like new roads and new local rail stations, which it is understood caused anger at Coventry City Council.
Such decisions were previously controlled by Coventry City Council and Warwickshire County Council.
David Tucker, vice chairman of the LEP’s transport group, said it was important that both the public and private sector were involved in the process, and that local authorities do not dominate.
Mr Tucker, from DTA Transportation, said: “I feel strongly that as a consultant on the transport group that we have to take advice both from the local authority and the private sector but what we can’t do is to have this process determined by one administration, particularly one that would appear to be opposed to the principle of local enterprise partnerships and the way they are supposed to be run.
“That is why Denys’s position became untenable.”
Meanwhile, fears have emerged over the process of appointing the next chair of the LEP.
Senior LEP sources believe Sir Peter Rigby, the multi-millionaire owner of Coventry Airport, is the most likely successor to Mr Shortt, and fear a conflict of interest as his “Coventry Gateway” development is perhaps the city’s most crucial initiative and a potential future beneficiary of public funding.
They have called for an open, transparent process resulting in nominations and a board vote.
Richard Smith, chairman of the LEP’s property transport and planning group, said it was important that LEPs – which have to have private sector chairs – are not dominated by local authorities.
Mr Smith, who is chairman of Opus Land, said: “The LEPs were set up to be led by the private sector in partnership with the local authorities to remove barriers to growth and create jobs.
“If in Coventry and Warwickshire we end up with Coventry City Council control that will not be in the best interests of what LEPs were set up to do. Denys has done a fantastic job and really got things moving. With the economic constipation that we are in he did absolutely everything he could for Coventry and Warwickshire.”
Louise Bennett, chief executive of the Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce, said that the successor to Mr Shortt would be appointed according to established procedures.
She said Coventry City Council was committed to the LEP and denied that anyone was set to take over as chair.
Ms Bennett said: “Denys announced publicly at the last board meeting that he was planning to step down earlier than expected and actually asked for board members to come forward if they were interested in succeeding him, as our minutes show.
“His statement about leaving the LEP cited that he needed to spend time working on his business – something totally understandable bearing in mind the amount of effort and time he dedicated to the LEP.
“We have a clear and agreed appointment process in place, as was fully demonstrated when our last board member was appointed. As Denys decided to leave earlier than expected there have been no potential successors yet proposed.”
In response to allegations that the city council is working against the spirit of the LEP, she added: “Coventry City Council are certainly fully committed to the LEP – evidenced by the level of resource they have been prepared to dedicate in terms of staff time – as are the county and district councils. The FSB and the chamber of commerce, representing the private sector, are equally committed and play a key role.”