Business leaders unite after Chamber’s broadside at Lancashire Enterprise Partnership

By John Henderson

Business leaders and representatives have rallied behind the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) after the leadership of one of the county’s three chambers of commerce publicly blasted the organisation for what it says is a lack of consultation with business.

And while all believe the LEP could communicate better with business, the attack by North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce (NWLCC) has been labelled ‘bizarre’ and its timing questioned.

"Lobbying, it strikes us, is more likely to draw results than lobbing bricks." Read the publisher's comments >>

Negative headlines followed NWLCC’s statement with questions being asked about a lack of unity as the county bids to drive forward its economy. The county council’s economic development director Martin Kelly responded with a robust public defence of the LEP’s record, including the development of a £1billion growth programme.

The very public outburst, which appeared in some media, has left leading business voices baffled and concerned about the message it sends to the outside world and those controlling regional finances, particularly in the context of a difficult and fractious birth for the LEP when rival approaches, which foresaw up to three LEPs for the county, threatened its formation.

Frank McKenna, chief executive of business group Downtown Lancashire, said: “The delivery record of the LEP is actually better than most: not just in the rest of the north but in the rest of the country.

“The criticism that has been levelled by Downtown and other business organisations directly to the LEP and its representatives has been that it has perhaps not been as good at communicating that message to the business community.

“What I’d say is they have taken that on board and are about to commission a major offensive as far as getting the message out.”

"The timing of what NWLCC has done is somewhat bizarre." - Frank McKenna

The LEP, through Marketing Lancashire, is currently tendering a £100,000 marketing project which includes in its brief building closer relationships with the private sector to communicate “a united and proud Lancashire”.

Frank McKenna continued: “Criticism has been accepted, taken on board and acted upon so, again, the timing of what NWLCC has done is somewhat bizarre. I’d say it has been ill-conceived and not really thought through.”

LEP McKenna sqHe added: “We sit back in admiration and awe at the ability of Greater Manchester to get on and do things. The latest package of devolution measures they have managed to secure is hugely impressive by anybody’s standards.

“The reason Manchester is able to do that is they work together and they have their fall outs, of which there are many, very privately.

“You don’t see headlines splashed across the front of the Manchester Evening News talking about this sort of thing. These conversations take place but they take place in the privacy of what they call the Manchester family.”

At the heart of NWLCC’s criticism were questions it put to its members as part of its Quarterly Economic Survey. It asked if they had been consulted on the design and implementation of the LEP’s ‘Strategic Economic Plan’ and reported that only two per cent responded positively.

It said that 60 per cent replied they had not been consulted, with 38 per cent saying they did not know whether they had been given an opportunity to contribute or approve the plan in any way.

President Norman Tenray used those statistics to declare: “It is about time Lancashire’s LEP started talking to the businesses it is meant to be supporting and give them a real say on where money is spent in the county.”

"It is about time Lancashire’s LEP started talking to the businesses it is meant to be supporting." - Norman Tenray

He also questioned the LEP’s record on delivery, describing momentum on its initiatives as “slow” and adding, “Benefits from many of the programmes have yet to filter through.”

He told the Lancashire Evening Post: “We have been saying for some time that the LEP does not consult Lancashire businesses enough and this is the proof.” Other leaders disagree.

The quarterly survey was carried out jointly between the county’s three chambers of commerce. However, the East Lancashire and Lancaster groups declined to carry the questions about the LEP – highlighting some major differences in approach across the county.

LEP Damms sqEast Lancashire Chamber has a representative on the LEP board in the shape of its chief executive Mike Damms. He also chairs its stakeholders group, set up to provide a forum for the LEP to communicate with and consult the county’s businesses through its intermediaries and representative organisations.

So what’s Mike Damms’ take on the situation? “The LEP is work in progress,” he says.

“The opinions expressed are those of North and Western Lancashire Chamber and they’re the ones engaging their membership. That is entirely their prerogative and it is right and proper if it’s what the members wished to do.”

He said the county’s chambers “collaborate well when a single voice is needed; but the value of having several of the UK’s strongest chambers is that they can also be more targeted when local variations are appropriate”.

"The LEP’s priority has been bidding for funds and it has been remarkably effective with almost £1bn won." - Mike Damms

There were, he added, sometimes “different styles” between east and west as the chambers had evolved to serve their particular local economies.

East Lancashire took the decision not to put the LEP question to its members in the survey. He said: “It wasn’t that we think everything in the garden is perfect but the chambers have adopted different approaches and are at different stages on this particular subject.

“East Lancashire, for example, has publicised general progress to all its members and then used focus groups to refine the priorities for investment that have been honed through our local partnerships and consultations. The structures in the west are different.”

He added: “It has to be recognised that LEPs are effectively underfunded and have to be competitive as funding opportunities arise - and they often come with rules.

“In that context Lancashire’s LEP first priority has been bidding for funds for Lancashire, and it has been remarkably effective with almost £1bn won.

“However, the key areas where NWLCC has concerns – accountability, skills planning, business support , communication and publicising Lancashire - are all now in the pipeline to be addressed.

“It is, for example, timely for the stakeholder group, which East Lancashire chairs and North and West Lancashire is invited to, to act on its communication remit and to review Boost (the growth hub), and wider business support, as well as formalising its advisory and scrutiny role in the LEP.”

Ask Norman Tenray if the issues he has raised so publicly should have been dealt with in private and he says: “We tried.”

However, he is adamant NWLCC is not trying to pick a fight with anyone. He said the questions that sparked his statement followed a critical letter at the end of last year from central government about the LEP’s delivery record.

He said: “Because the quarterly survey already done and out for December we included it in this quarter. It was the first one we could run it in.

"We don’t want fights; we are not starting a fight with anyone." - Norman Tenray

“It wasn’t meant to be a damning question, we actually asked a very positive question and we were actually quite surprised in terms of the lack of engagement.”

He added: “We don’t want fights; we are not starting a fight with anyone. We are trying to feedback positively the results and say ‘come on, we better do something moving forward’. That’s a good thing.”

NWLCC says more than 10 per cent of those sampled responded to the questions contained within the economic survey. A spokesman explained: “We sample, on average, 1,000 members per quarter.”

LEP Tenray sqNorman added: “The publicity generated by these results has led to support from all corners of the county where people are equally frustrated at the lack of transparency and engagement by the LEP.”

He still questions the pace of delivery from the LEP in terms of job creation and he added: “We’re here to say let’s get Lancashire moving.”

He wants to see Blackpool’s Enterprise Zone move more quickly than the LEP initiatives at Warton and Samlesbury, adding: “This is an ideal opportunity to get some momentum.”

Asked about NWLCC’s lack of representation on the LEP board, he said: “Since the decision of NWLCC board member, Steven Broomhead, to step down from the LEP  board, the chamber has not been given an opportunity to fill this position.”

However, he doesn’t see that as a problem. “The issue is not the representation of NWLCC on the LEP, but the lack of consultation which this body has with businesses within the county.”

Not unsurprisingly LEP insiders take a different view of NWLCC’s action and some question the chamber’s level of engagement with the LEP and its initiatives such as Boost.

NWLCC was not present at the last two LEP SME consultation forums. It was also absent from a recent large scale private-public consultation event on the future of business support in the county.

"This will have been seen and noted in Whitehall. We are not going back to those bad old days."

One insider said: “I’m perplexed by all this. This will have been seen and noted in Whitehall. Lancashire has worked so hard to establish credibility and to speak with one voice. We are not going back to those bad old days.”

Gary Lovatt, regional chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, has some ideas about how Lancashire should move forward. He believes the LEP “could be more transparent and representative of the Lancashire business community.”

He added: “We propose an annual conference where businesses in Lancashire can be updated on LEP activity and can give their views and ideas on possible future activity.

“In between we need to see a more consultative approach between the LEP and business organisations such as the FSB and chambers so that effective two-way communication can be developed to feed messages out to businesses and ideas and suggestions up to the LEP.

“However, as the chamber’s own survey recognises, respondents wanted the LEP to focus on getting support to businesses and helping businesses to grow,” he added.

“To this end progress has been good, with Boost Business Lancashire tying together various strands and getting support to lots of small businesses, many of whom aren’t interested in reading LEP strategy documents because they are too busy.”

LEP Kersey sqJohn Kersey, chairman of the county branch of the Institute of Directors, said: “NWLCC’s comments seem a little out of kilter. A discussion between the chambers’ members seems more appropriate rather than open public debate about the workings of the LEP.

“The LEP is there to ensure economic growth and prosperity of the whole of Lancashire, not just the east or west, and as such all business organisations should be fully represented to ensure all views are fully considered before major infrastructure projects are given approval.

"We all would like a fairer more affluent Lancashire. The LEP has the power to deliver this." - John Kersey

“With reference to the way the LEP promote the decisions they make on large projects, I believe a more public interface and promotion of projects that have the potential to create jobs and growth in our region would benefit the county as a whole, reflecting more transparency.

“After all we all would like a fairer more affluent Lancashire. The LEP has the power to deliver this for all of Lancashire's residents.”

Frank McKenna added: “What we should acknowledge is the LEP’s tremendous ability to actually get things done despite the lack of resource it has been given by central government.

“An Enterprise Zone has been secured; we have won a City Deal and done extremely well in attracting significant pots of cash for business support from both national and European budgets.

“The county’s Boost initiative is the most comprehensive business support project that I have seen anywhere in the UK.

"We should acknowledge the LEP’s tremendous ability to actually get things done despite the lack of resource it has been given." - Frank McKenna

“We have a fantastic business offer and great assets and yet here we are again, talking about internal difficulties and challenges rather than presenting ourselves as a united force that’s progressive and going places. It’s a shame.”

He added: “There is always a place for constructive criticism, but the main reason this particular statement is so bizarre is that NWLCC has had a place on the LEP board for the past four years. Surely, therefore, it has a duty to inform its members of what the LEP is doing? The NWLCC president, in effect, is criticising his own organisation.”

Publisher's comment: NWLCC stands alone in damning of Partnership

By Richard Slater, Lancashire Business View

LEP Slater sqThe attack on Lancashire’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) by the leadership of one of the county’s business organisations has been branded ‘bizarre’, ‘ill-conceived’, ‘out of kilter’ and ‘reckless’ by other leaders.

And while the very public criticism of the LEP’s engagement with the business community and its effectiveness has raised uncomfortable questions about a lack of unity in Lancashire, it should be largely ignored. Hopefully, in Whitehall, it will be.

The broadside, by the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce (NWLCC), sparked negative headlines and led to the county council’s economic development director Martin Kelly responding with a robust public defence of the LEP’s track record, including the development of a £1bn growth programme.

The attack also came at a time when the LEP is tendering a £100,000 marketing project which includes building closer relationships with the private sector to communicate “a united and proud Lancashire.”

The public airing of perceived grievances has left leading business voices baffled and concerned about the message it sends to the outside world and those holding the purse strings.

John Kersey, chair of the Institute of Directors in Lancashire, said: “A discussion between the NWLCC’s members seems more appropriate than an open public debate.”

And the timing of the NWLCC commentary has been questioned too.

The NWLCC criticisms were based on the results of a survey conducted with some of its members (East Lancashire and Lancaster chambers declined to carry the supplementary LEP questions in their regular Quarterly Economic Surveys). NWLCC said the results showed 60 per cent of those who responded had not been consulted on the LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan with 38 per cent not sure if they’d been given a chance to contribute. This was extrapolated to suggest only two per cent had been consulted. This is an odd admission for a lobbying group: is it not their job to consult their members and provide representation?

Nonetheless, NWLCC President Norman Tenray declared: “We have been saying for some time now that the LEP does not consult Lancashire businesses enough and this is the proof.”

It is nothing of the kind.

"Lobbying, it strikes us, is more likely to draw results than lobbing bricks." - Richard Slater

We asked NWLCC more than once about the size and make-up of the survey. This is what they told us: “More than 10 per cent of those sampled responded to the questions. We sample, on average, 1,000 members per quarter.”

About a hundred or so responses then? They wouldn’t say. And, while we also don’t know how many responded to the specific LEP questions, we do know they self-selected.

In its conclusion NWLCC is wrong and their result should not be considered representative of the 50-odd thousand businesses in the county; nor of its business leaders and representatives.

NWLCC appears to be on its own here. The business voice for Lancashire is becoming increasingly united and any differences are debated in private. NWLCC has self-excluded from some of these forums and was notably absent from a recent ‘gathering of the tribes’ where the private and public sectors came together to consider the future of business support in the county. It is not the LEP who is letting down members of NWLCC.

But it goes beyond local spats: NWLCC’s position veers towards irresponsibility and, as one senior figure said privately, “abject recklessness”.

There is still Lancashire blood staining the walls of Vince Cable’s office from the pummelling our business leaders received at the start of the last parliamentary term. There were talks of bipartite and even tripartite approaches to the county’s pursuit of an Enterprise Partnership to which Cable said: “One county, one voice: sort yourselves out.”

Yes, that’s tricky. With 14 district and unitary authorities, a county council and a plethora of interested parties; parochial and sector interests come to the fore. But genuine progress has been made.

And if the LEP has not been perfect in communicating its strategies and successes, it’s hardly hidden them either – Google ‘Lancashire Enterprise Partnership’ and you’ll see.

Gary Lovatt, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses in Lancashire and Cumbria said: “Progress by the LEP has been good in terms of getting support to small businesses and helping them grow, and many aren’t interested in reading strategy documents because they are too busy.”

And there’s the rub. That’s what the representative bodies are for: reading, assimilating, sharing, consulting and lobbying.

Lobbying, it strikes us, is more likely to draw results than lobbing bricks. And yet, while Lancashire business has been done no favours through this episode, there remains enough of a collective will to pursue shared ambitions with vigour.