Time to grasp our opportunities

Antony Higginbotham

Earlier this year the chancellor announced he was minded to withdraw central government support for Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) from next April. For us, it means the end of the Lancashire LEP. Last month, this decision was confirmed.

While LEPs have had successes since their inception in 2011, I have always been a sceptic. At times they felt bureaucratic and cumbersome and lacked the level of transparency I thought they should have, given the amount of funding directed through them.

For those businesses and organisations ‘on the inside’ they worked well, but for the many small businesses that didn’t have a foot in the door, who I speak to often, they offered less. This isn’t any reflection on the excellent people who ran and worked in LEPs but is a broader reflection on the limits of unaccountable bodies.

Elected politicians at every level are accountable to the public – including the business community – for everything from regeneration and skills to health disparity, and so it is right that they hold a more formalised role. Accountability and responsibility should always go hand in hand.

With that in mind the government has, in recent years, shifted the funding model for projects away from LEPs and towards a system of working more closely with MPs and local authorities. The Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund are two examples which are seeing tens of millions of pounds of investment being driven into Lancashire.

And with negotiations on a County Deal for devolution progressing well, this shift looks to be continuing in a way which could bring huge benefits for our area.

The remit of the LEP will, all being well, transfer to a new Combined County Authority. Whilst the full scope of powers for this body is yet to be established, it looks likely to cover economic development, housing, health, and more.

And because that is set-up to be a democratic and accountable body it will, by design, be closer to those on whose behalf it is working.

Over the last decade the LEP has made a real difference to our county. Regeneration projects are booming, and Lancashire is developing a name for itself.

With the arrival of National Cyber Force, the ramp up of design for the Future Combat Air System, the expansion of nuclear energy and so much more, our potential is huge.

Our collective task now, as MPs, councillors, business leaders, and anyone else we can mobilise, is to use the new structures being offered to grasp these opportunities.

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