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The path to local growth – or a cul-de-sac?

The path to local growth – or a cul-de-sac?

🕔18.Mar 2013

There is, quite understandably, plenty of positive coverage for The Greater Birmingham Project overnight. But for Leveson shenanigans, stories about Lord Hestletine’s review, the recent work in Birmingham and now the Government’s response to the original report would be the main UK political story of the day. Reasonable for Government pre-budget, good for Tarzan and great for Birmingham.

I certainly don’t want to rain on the parade that started on St Patrick’s Day. Not least as I’ve worked on related projects which at the time seemed to herald a bright new dawn. I am a passionate believer in localism and the need to devolve power and budgets to as local a level as possible with effective structures and proper accountability. After all, it’s why Marc and I established RJF since we believe in localism and the need to professionalise the way public affairs will need to work with localism in play. The Steering Group has worked tirelessly over the last two months and they appear to be on the verge of something – to quote Hezza – historic.

Three things strike me. First, it’s a very conversational

report with many words given over to explaining how we have reached such a pretty impasse with too much Whitehall control. In highlighting how LEPs are now allowed to lead Employee Ownership Programmes for Skills, it finishes the point with a one line paragraph: “This is ridiculous.” Beyond the history and analysis there is a lot of familiar material, from The M42 Economic Gateway and Birmingham Airport expansion to quicker broadband rollout and various hubs, zones and accelerators. All of which are perfectly good points, but will hardly come as new to most of the people for whom this report was written.

Second, there is little by way of rich evidence that makes the case for a single pot. There are few who would doubt that bringing various funding streams together and handing the controls down from London-based ministers and civil servants is a sensible move that cannot come a moment too soon. As the report argues, a single pot should make things happen faster, with less complexity and provide greater potential to leverage other private and public monies. But we knew – or at least thought – all that already.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – governance. Let’s be clear, this report proposes something new and significant. A Supervisory Board, made up of the local authorities, would essentially take ultimate responsibility for GBSLEP. Sure, there will be delegated responsibilities to the existing Board but overall control will rest with the councils. Just to make the point about the strength of the local government side of the table in this new settlement, the reports suggests:

“In addition, we will strengthen the GBSLEP Board by appointing a CEO (probably the CEO or another senior manager from one of the local authorities).”

We should be in little doubt that the “private sector-led” nature of LEPs – such as it ever was in reality – would take another dent.

That is not to say I don’t see or even agree with the argument that if GBSLEP is to make further progress with single pot funds and responsibilities, it needs to have far more democratic accountability. Having a bunch of businesspeople in charge of billions of public funds is not democratically fit for purpose. However, this new structure opens up more questions than it answers. Will each council have one vote, or will it operate on a weighted per capita basis? How will the Supervisory Board be scrutinised? Is this the start of a race to a Metro Mayor? I could go on (and on).

The Government will say a lot of positive things about this latest report and No Stone Unturned this week. We should be encouraged by that and keep forcing the pace of implementation. But that path to localism as well as local growth, which is planned for after the next General Election, will see a quite a few crashes, detours and cul-de-sacs in the next two years.

 

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