Alex Pratt, chairman of the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership, is at the very forefront of the LEP movement and a successful businessman in his own right.
Just prior to his barnstorming speech at this year’s ADEPT conference, he had a meeting with officials from the Department for Transport (DfT), the Highways Agency and the Local Government Association (LGA) on the future cooperation and strategic governance of LEPs.
Here he speaks exclusively to Transport Network revealing as much as he can about what the direction of travel for these key local bodies is - bodies described by Paul Schofield, director general of neighbourhoods at the DCLG, as being where the ‘action is’ on local growth.
You said in your speech LEPs are aware that transport is where the money is, can you tell us more about that?
‘The Single Local Growth Fund has been populated largely from DfT’s budget. The biggest budget number within the SLGF that the Strategic Economic Plans (SEPs) are pitching into is transport. And there is generally a deficiency in transport as there is in infrastructure across the land. So I would have expected, irrespective of the budget, for LEPs to be coming forward with quite a few transport issues whether it’s about transport integration or roads or rail. But the fact that the budget is coming out of DfT has focussed minds even more.’
You also said there was movement away from talking about just roads to a conversation about growth inside the Highways Agency, could you expand on that:
‘I think the Highways Agency and the DfT generally are now thinking about growth rather than just roads. Growth is actually delivered by access to energy, connectivity and enterprise. Connectivity is delivered by transport in its various forms or mobile and broadband connections. Transport in all of its guises is a central driver of economic growth. What’s new is that the department and the Highways Agency have in the past tended to think of roads only, rather than what a road can do to unlock growth. So growth has not featured as prominently in the decision matrix as it now will. They are now calling themselves the engine for growth.
What difference will this make on the ground?
‘There are a couple of things I am hoping for. Firstly they have more money so hopefully more things will be able to be delivered. The plans for the strategic road network show the beginning of a more long-term, more strategic approach. The five, six year funding horizon for the Highways Agency offers, albeit over a relatively short time-frame, an opportunity to think ahead. And actually one of the biggest changes is that as the Highways Agency becomes an independent public corporation instead of an arms length body, its funding is not going to be the remainder money from the DfT but actually monies allowing the agency to plan ahead with, and that I think will make a huge difference. So instead of not actually being able to enter into conversations in a number of areas because there is no money, there will be a much more fruitful debate.’
When you talked with the DfT and Highways Agency, what was the debate focussed on?
‘It was all about transport. It was brought together by the LGA and it brought LEP chairs, the Highways Agency, DFT and LGA together. Initially we came together just to talk about how we are going to engage with one another because there are 39 LEPs are going to have a conversation partly with the DfT around their bids as part of their strategic economic plans.
There are also sub-regional geographies. Where major pieces of transport infrastructure cross over many LEPs needs to be thought about and we need a cross-LEP discussion in those areas and there are some national priorities that might be dealt with by the 39 LEPs as a whole. So we are just at the point of saying the game has changed, let’s look at how we can co-create. Our ask is for us to co-create rather than be consulted.
And how is that agenda progressing?
‘It’s very early days but I read a strong willingness in the Highways Agency and the DfT to make this work. It was very complex and complicated and there are lots of different interests but the first thing to do is to sit down and have a discussion about how we might take this forward and that is what we have just done.’
You said the LEPs will inevitably fall away one day. Do you think these discussions will outlast LEPs?
‘It has every prospect of doing so. Who knows how long the LEPs are going to last? What we have to do particularly for something like transport is think in a more long-term and integrated fashion than we have before. There was talk of the Highways Agency folding - departments might go.
The truth is we are all custodians of the journey if you like. We all have to play our role and I have hope that the creation of the 39 LEPs will bring a bottom up influence at a practical level that is stronger than it was before because it brings business and communities together, but it’s not the only solution in terms of the long-term strategy for transport. It has to have national and sub-regional dimensions to it. If we are wise we will all work towards a long-term, hopefully at some point cross-party approach to a number of things and this could be a pre-cursor, who knows. It could be exciting.’
If there were any top goals you wanted to achieve from this process about the future of transport policy, what would they be?
‘I think clarity. We are in an organisational soup at the moment as we go through the changes. If we can be really clear what an individual LEP can expect from its engagement from Government in general but in this case specifically from the department ie where it is sensible to have a discussion in a group and where it is sensible to have a discussion as an entire network. If we can get that in play then I think, particularly the business voice in LEPs, and also the LGA would be much more comfortable in understanding where you can apply the right influence to get the right things done.
The 39 LEPs are both in competition with each other and collaborating with one another, depending on the project. So you know we are entering an interesting period and what we need to ensure is that we get delivery of the right things.’
You also talked about LEPs wanting to create a board to represent the network, can you give us any more details?
‘The 39 LEPs are all adamant we want our own conversation with Whitehall. That’s predominantly the nature of the relationship - the LEP’s conversation with central Government and getting a deal done on devolution or delegation of power, freedom, responsibility and budget. What we’re talking about in terms of representing the collective LEP network is very light touch, something that services each and every LEP rather than leads LEPs, and provides the capacity for us to come together when we need to, to collectively argue when we need to argue together.
So it’s like a central secretariat more than anything else, we are not looking for a chair of chairs, we want 39 individual discussion, but clearly as transport indicates now and again it makes sense to come together. So we would come together in making the case to the Department for Education for instance and say look come on we all think schools are important, we know you are busy doing other things, but long-term let’s start getting young people into the b