Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
A little while ago I was asked “what’s the point of the Local Enterprise Partnerships?”
I’ve been a fan since George Osborne launched them in 2010, as successors to the hugely bureaucratic and unaccountable Regional Development Agencies, which seemed to spend all their funding on vast salaries, expensive offices, endless reports and meetings, rather than investing in their communities.
In contrast, Local Enterprise Partnerships were a public sector revolution, with boards comprising two thirds senior business people, bringing a wide range of expertise, and one third council leaders, equipped to make decisions to support regional economic growth.
Getting these ventures off the ground was no easy task; it demanded passion and determination to bring the right people together, to agree the county boundaries and recruit the support team.
One of the most successful, and highly regarded by Government, is the New Anglia LEP, covering Suffolk and Norfolk, an area which suffered from a lack of major public investment for generations, under successive governments.
So the first (unpaid) Chair, Andy Wood OBE, Chief Executive of Adnams Plc in Southwold, Suffolk, faced up to the considerable challenges.
“I immediately saw the potential for a public/private partnership with dynamism and vision, combining local knowledge and business acumen to identify investment opportunities and implement solutions. Working together effectively to grow the economy and create more jobs, putting NALEP on the national map.
“We have such fantastic assets in the region, from major ports and offshore energy, to Hi-Tech industries at Martlesham, and Tech clusters, animal and agricultural research centres, leading innovative insurance groups, high quality food and drink producers, and a thriving hospitality industry. Highly successful small and medium sized independent businesses are key, alongside our colleges and universities, including the new Aviation Training Centre, as well as our unique history and culture. Suffolk is also home to Newmarket’s world-class racehorse industry.
“Despite this, there is serious deprivation in some areas, which we were determined to address. Osborne recognised that most business leaders have a strong sense of civic responsibility, and are willing to give up their time to contribute to their communities. Initial funding came from local authorities, but at NALEP we were very fortunate to have strong support from our MPs, working together to take our message to Westminster, using their influence to gain access to the Treasury and other ministers, making the case for central government funding to deliver key projects.”
This was especially critical when it came to the roads and railway, improving access to the Midlands and London, which was a priority, following years of under-investment. Wood explains:
“Upgrading the infrastructure inevitably still causes some disruption, but means significant long-term economic benefits, with new trains entering service in 2020. None of this would have happened without Government willingness to listen to us and our ambitions.
“We had a vision for this part of the world, and could see how it could become a major economic driver for the UK: a great place to live, work, learn and play. Somewhere for young people to develop and bring up their families, instead of moving away to make a decent living.
“We are entering the 4th industrial revolution, with facing into artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data. So we need institutions to recognise the need to bring young people forward, anticipating the future, which is why broadband is so critical, aiming for 4G or 5G, integrating our extensive rural areas into the workplace.”
Unlocking further investment meant securing City Deals for Norwich and Ipswich; Enterprise Zones have proved very successful around Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill, whilst Ipswich and Lowestoft are beginning to capitalise.
When I sometimes attended NALEP board meetings, as the Economic Development Cabinet member on Suffolk County Council, subbing for my Leader, I was immensely impressed by the speed with which decisions were taken; instead of having to cope with unnecessary delays and frustratingly incomprehensible reports, officers presented succinct, but detailed assessments of each funding option. Bidders were often invited to put their case before board members, giving them greater insight for the subsequent discussion and vote. Consequently, previously inaccessible development sites were released for housing or commercial schemes, or businesses purchased expensive new equipment to improve productivity. Essential regeneration targeted at deprived areas to create jobs.
Wood admits that he anticipated the slowdown in retail several years ago, and warned local authorities to make appropriate plans.
“They are committed to doing the best, but were slow to respond and adapt. They aren’t always up to speed with how business operates, so we need to encourage greater diversity of experience, and certainly people with private sector experience and entrepreneurial flair to become involved, sharing their ideas with councils and LEPs.”
His four years as Chair, “were certainly a learning experience, and I’m a better leader for that, with greater understanding of the trials and tribulations in getting things done, bringing disparate organisations together.”
The experience also taught him how critical it is to build resilience by developing regional hubs, rather than concentrating growth and infrastructure on a select network.
“There are sound benefits in clustering beyond the South East to create wealth and removing the economic fragility when areas become focused on just one or two main industries. This can lead to job losses with nothing to replace them and no long term stability.”
Tourism, he suggests, is underplayed by politicians, and very much the poor relation in business terms, “yet it is vital to Suffolk and Norfolk, worth around £5 billion a year, with just one per cent growth creating 1,000 jobs in meaningful careers, without necessarily having a degree. The General Manager at one of our hotels, The Swan in Southwold, is just 25; he came from Manchester and makes a fantastic contribution to our business.”
NALEP continues to be in good hands, with its third Chair: Doug Field, Joint CEO of the East of England Co-op, took over a year ago. The recently published Annual Review confirmed continued success, with £22 million approved under the Growth Deal, £39.6 million investment unlocked, £3.5 million awarded for business support and 309 learners/apprentices supported.
The Government confirmed its continued commitment to LEPs, and their role as integral to economic growth, in its report published in July 2018, ‘Strengthened Local Enterprise Partnerships’.
Being “private sector led, accountable to their communities, underpinning future national and local collaboration,” it notes how Chairs act as authoritative advocates for their local economy whilst also committing the Government to commissioning an annual economic outlook to measure performance, and supporting LEPs to provide annual delivery plans and end of year reports, promising an extra £20 million for 2018-19 and 2019-20. It also anticipates the new long-term visions to be agreed early in 2020.
With combined Mayoral and LEP authorities proving effective, the Government suggests it is open to exploring similar devolution with other authorities, and commits to “increasing regular dialogue with LEPS” whilst offering an induction and training programme to encourage more diversity, with the ambition to attract more business leaders to join boards.