Posted on:
11th May, 2021

“If we are to live locally and prosper, we’ll require the power of our LEPs” says think tank Chief

In an exclusive for the LEP Network, Localis Chief Executive Jonathan Werran examines what Super Thursday and today's Queen Speech really mean for 'levelling-up' and the future role of economic partners like LEPs.

“If we are to live locally and prosper, we’ll require the power of our LEPs” says think tank Chief

"With the votes from Super Thursday counted and the main lineaments of the local and regional electoral map for England fixed for the foreseeable, what comes next? We won’t have to wait long with the imminent publication of the Queen’s Speech with a packed to the bills slate of 25 pieces of legislation, not including carry overs, to herald the return to recovery and business as new normal.

So having secured the hat-trick of Hartlepool as a parliamentary constituency and the mayoral combined authorities of Tees Valley and the West Midlands, the question is what to do with this overwhelming mandate before the verdict of the next general election?  All roads to the answer of what is to be done within the course of this parliament lead to the ‘everywhere’ agenda which is Levelling Up. 

The White Paper - to be led by the prime minister - will focus on policy challenges involved in  improving living standards, growing business and increasing and spreading opportunity – all amid a backdrop and backlog or repairing the damage wreaked by Covid to public services including our hospitals and courts.

The clear and present danger for Levelling Up as a catch all term is that it becomes devalued and then derided as was the experience with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ which ultimately came to be seen, fairly or otherwise, as volunteer masking tape to cover damaging cuts to frontline local and community services.

If there’s to be any hope of a quick and coherent impact from levelling up, it will have to be through sustained economic growth, the benefits of which are seen, experienced and appreciated by people where they live.  Last week in response to the Levelling Up White Paper, Localis came up with some thoughts on why growth is as inseparable from devolution as bread from butter of fish from chips.

The central thrust of our argument, ‘A Plan for Local Growth’ is that there should be a strict separation between short-term, community-led decision-making for town centre and high-street renewal - which boosts place prosperity - and long-term, high-value central government infrastructure strategies aimed at raising historic low-levels of productivity.

To this end, central government must get behind community control of high-street regeneration, accelerate devolved skills reforms and define a clear role for local authorities and their economic partners, particularly Local Enterprise Partnerships, in driving economic development and meeting net zero targets.  As our Plan for Local growth made clear, the way in which many LEPs have led on their strategies, and the manner in which they sprang into action during the pandemic, proves the integral role they play in local growth and recovery. Ensuring they evolve as recognised and respected local economic partners is a key element of that future landscape. 

On that vexed issue of local government reorganisation, our analysis questions whether driving economic recovery through changes of machinery to the local state is the most direct route.  Clearly some parts of the country, Somerset, Cumbria and North Yorkshire have already left that station and need to work their situation out.  But one size will not comfortably fit all parts of the country and after function comes form and finance. 

With an eye to the next spending review, whenever that can take place, a strong local state will need to be bolstered with local tax-raising fiscal levers if this is to make sense in the long term.  Localis’s study on continental models of fiscal devolution for the Local Government Association surveyed how near continental neighbours in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland do so. The examples neatly disproved the bogey-man argument that fiscal devolution should always lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ or an iniquitous postcode lottery. Far from it.

On the contrary, the evidence suggests instead that without greater decentralisation of local government finance, the levelling up agenda will fail to provide either the targeted economic development support to rebalance regional economies or the social infrastructure to cement place prosperity.

Localis firmly believes that national recovery through building back better and ‘levelling up’ will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from Theresa May’s industrial strategy.

So on the basis that levelling up, a radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre, and that we must trust in the new mayors to use their convening powers to get the local political economy around the table, how might we suggest the Levelling Up White Paper create maximum benefit for minimum effort? To build on the foundations laid out in the Plan for Growth, Localis recommends that the Levelling Up White Paper should:

  • Create pathways to community autonomy as a vehicle for hyperlocal, small-scale and patient financing of regeneration.
  • Build a framework for devolution to Skills Advisory Panels to facilitate local collaboration between employers, providers and education authorities to further accelerate the push to improve skill levels.
  • Create a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for net zero.
  • Clarify and codify the role for existing institutions of the local state particularly local authorities in Local Enterprise Partnerships – in driving economic development.

From the perspective of Localis, if we are to live locally and prosper, we will require the power of our Local Enterprise Partnerships as much as Captain Kirk relied on USS Enterprise to spread peace throughout the galaxy.   As fellow shipmate Mr Spock would have observed, when not encouraging us to live long and prosper, it’s only logical."