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How many LEPs does a West Midlands combined authority really need?

How many LEPs does a West Midlands combined authority really need?

🕔17.Jun 2015

The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership will stage its annual meeting on Friday, June 19. But could this be the final hurrah for GBSLEP in its present form, asks Paul Dale.

Andy Street, the boss of John Lewis, chair of GBSLEP, rewarded with a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, will join the great and good of the business and political world at Birmingham’s Town Hall for an annual conference to highlight the LEP’s good works during the past year.

But in the background, behind what will no doubt be a slick production, invited guests will be wondering whether the proposal to establish a West Midlands combined authority may have huge implications not just for GBSLEP but for the region’s other LEPs too.

To put it bluntly, if Birmingham, the Black Country councils, Solihull, Coventry, Lichfield and perhaps some of the Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire districts do team up to form a single, huge, combined authority covering four or five million people, would it still make sense to keep the existing six separate LEPs going?

Ultimately, you suspect, the LEP issue will be a matter for the new Local Government Secretary Greg Clark to reach a decision on. With the architects of local enterprise partnerships in the form of former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Business Secretary Vince Cable now safely out of the picture, Mr Clark can redesign the 39 English local enterprise partnerships if he so wishes.

As well as GBSLEP the West Midlands has LEPs covering Coventry and Warwickshire, the Black Country, The Marches, Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire and Worcestershire.

It’s not as if these bodies are simply talking shops with little responsibility for anything. LEPs have moved on a long way from the coalition government’s initial idea of fairly small, lean bodies that would bring private sector know-how to the forefront of regeneration. They have grown in size and stature and now, working with local councils, the six West Midlands LEPs are responsible for delivering Government Growth Deals worth just under £1 billion.

GBSLEP’s growth deal is worth almost £380 million. The organisation is working with Birmingham city council to oversee the Birmingham city centre enterprise zone, regeneration around the arrival of HS2 at Curzon as well as the redevelopment of Paradise Circus.

Over the lifetime of the Growth Deal, 2015-2021, GBSLEP estimates that up to 29,000 new jobs could be created, 7,000 new homes built and that it has the potential to generate £170 million of public and private investment.

The Black Country growth deal is worth £162 million, The Marches £83 million, Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire £98 million, Coventry and Warwickshire £90 million and Worcestershire £54 million.

An obvious question arises therefore, if much of the area covered by the six LEPs is to become a combined authority with devolved powers for economic development and transportation, is it really necessary or even wise to have six different bodies leading on regeneration?

After all, having six LEP chairs sitting on the combined authority board along with perhaps nine or ten council leaders really would run the risk of developing into a bureaucratic talking shop. Would such an unwieldly body ever get anything of substance done?

This is a topic under consideration privately, if not yet publicly. Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham city council, hinted at organisational change when he told the independent Birmingham council improvement panel:

The work we are taking forward with the combined authority is not just the seven Metropolitan districts and the three LEPs but work is underway with the shire districts in Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Work is underway with the three LEPs about how we engage with the business community to develop that economic agenda.

The matter was raised in the House of Commons by Geoffrey Robinson, MP for Coventry north-west, who demanded answers from the Government about the future of the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP if Coventry council was to join a West Midlands combined authority while the Warwickshire district councils did not.

The Coventry and Warwickshire LEP would be “cut in half”, Mr Robinson complained.

Predictably enough, he did not get an adequate answer, or any answer at all really, from Greg Clark about the future of the LEP. Even so, this is an issue Mr Clark must know that he has to address.

A combined authority covering the Greater Birmingham area is likely to start work in April 2016. It will be called the West Midlands combined authority because the council leaders did not want ‘Birmingham’ to be in the name, which is hardly a promising start.

The region’s business community has long since accepted that West Midlands is a pretty meaningless concept, even in this country, as a location and completely anonymous abroad.  This will make it more difficult to promote the region to international investors.

Because they have an inexplicable fear, dislike even, of Birmingham our politicians have ignored the first test of marketing: the product you wish to promote must be instantly recognisable.

The West Midlands council leaders have, reportedly, reluctantly concluded that the new combined authority will eventually have to accept a directly elected metro mayor to gain the Government’s full devolution package. This much became obvious immediately after the General Election when George Osborne made it clear that mayors were non-negotiable for city regions wishing to take devolution seriously.

Even so, in order to give plenty of time for the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects, the West Midlands doesn’t envisage having a mayor until 2019 at the earliest. Which is two years after the Greater Manchester metro mayor takes office.

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