Our LEP will continue to deliver growth

Published 6th July 2015 at 2:44pm

By James Newman, LEP Chairman

In a recent speech, the Chancellor declared that, for any serious devolution of power and budgets, key City Regions, like Sheffield, will have to move to “a new model of city government” – and have an elected Mayor.

Of course, it is very much for the local politicians to decide how best to react to these proposals as they represent their electorate in their towns and cities as well as at City Region Combined Authority (CA) level. Whilst I enthusiastically welcome any plans to devolve more funding and powers from our over-centralised Government to our region and the north, my private sector colleagues on the LEP and I play are uncertain as to how this proposal will affect the part the private sector will play in future.

Last week, Sheffield City Region took a real step forward in its private and public sector partnership, a partnership already the envy of many LEPs across the country. At our CA AGM, the political Leaders across our City Region formally agreed with the LEP to establish five executive decision making Boards to cover our five key economic areas of activity: skills, business growth, infrastructure, transport and housing. This agreement delegates formal decision making and accountability down from the CA and LEP to these Executive Boards and formally cements what has been going on in practice since the LEP was formed in 2010 and the CA in 2014.

Private sector representatives from the LEP will sit alongside the Leaders as their equals and only unanimity will ensure that funding allocations and key strategic decisions are progressed. This will create a true and consensual partnership so that our Growth, City and Devolution deals are delivered to maximum effect as fast as possible.

This model, for the first time, delivers on the last Government’s promise that by creating the LEPs as private-public partnerships, the localism agenda will be better served and local economies will grow much better than under the previous large and unfocussed structures.

Earlier this week, at a LEP Network event in London, Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and a huge supporter of the LEP structure, reassured LEPs of the importance of their role in driving economic growth, saying there will be no devolution deals in the future without agreement from LEPs. This view was backed up by Lord Heseltine, who further underlined the importance of LEPs and the vital role they play in bringing the private sector voice to the economic agenda at a local level.

The ongoing discussion by ‘think tanks’, commentators and the press has been about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and what it might do for the north and the key City Regions. We even have a number of Ministers, led by James Wharton, (who is from the north), appointed to oversee this ambition. As someone who has worked all his life in the north, both sides of the Pennines, I am very supportive of the concept to try to rebalance the economy. But like all business people, will only be supportive whilst there is a chance of it happening in the relatively near future, that there is a real commitment to the investment needed and vitally, that it doesn’t create the kind of political and economic hiatus experienced in the transition from RDAs (Regional Development Agencies) to LEPs and CAs.

The announcement last week of a delay to the delivery of a number of rail electrification projects, which affect the northern cities, is not a great start but hopefully this is only a temporary setback until Network Rail gets its act together. What, however, is emerging from last week’s rail announcement is that there is still not a coherent plan and definition as to what the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ actually means in terms of political, infrastructure and economic terms.

I hope that the new Ministers will soon start to discuss, with both private and public sectors, how the enormously ambitious Northern Powerhouse project may become a reality. I say both public and private sectors because it is obvious that the success of the private sector-led LEPs cannot be ignored in this process and that the private sector needs to show the leadership it already has to work alongside a diverse group of local politicians across the north, all with different ambitions for their local economies.

What we do not want to do is to create is a mini EU with trading and political objectives which are confused, inefficient and out of reach of the local business or individual to influence and, at best, irrelevant. The localism agenda pursued by the last Government has been successful, especially in the north, and we must ensure that we do not lose our momentum. To paraphrase a well-known American President, who I had the pleasure of meeting when he came to Yorkshire 15 years ago, “It’s about the economy not the politics”, which all of those involved could do well with remembering as we start the process of rebuilding the north of England into the Powerhouse that it once was.

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