Communities secretary Eric Pickles has suggested the number of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) could fall after the election, with a wave of mergers on the cards to help the bodies better reflect ‘real economic areas’.
The Times reports that Mr Pickles asserted the partnerships between local authorities and business representatives would play a central role in localism and devolution in the Conservatives’ election manifesto but that the current system of 39 LEPs, with some overlapping geographically, was evolving.
‘They have an enormous chance to adapt. What we want to see is [LEPs reflecting] real economic areas. We would be happy to see LEPs move boundaries. We would be happy for LEPs to merge,' Mr Pickles said.
The secretary suggested he could not put a number on how many LEPs there should be, stating ‘it is for the LEPs to evolve, for the markets to decide’.
In response, Alex Pratt, chair of the LEP Network the central body that helps coordinate the work of LEPs, told Transport Network: ‘The biggest change to local government in generations is coming. We all recognise that post election there will be some form of new constitutional settlement and whoever wins they will work with local government to reshape things.
‘LEPs exist within that environment. If the system of local government changes, we would like to reflect that but would hope it is led by the local business entities involved in the LEPs rather than a top down change.’
Mr Pratt, who is also the chairman of the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley LEP, added: ‘I am sure some LEPs will be having discussions about federal arrangements already. In my own LEP we are already working with a number of nearby LEPs so we can develop economies of scale.’
The minister also suggested to The Times that he could see LEPs becoming accountable to local authorities rather than Whitehall.
Mr Pratt suggested accountability arrangements for LEPs should track funding arrangements and if cash came directly from councils rather than a pooled central government fund, LEPs would have to be more accountable to local authorities.
The LEP Network ran into trouble last year after the rapidly expanding remit for LEPs left the central body overstretched, resulting in the loss of key personal including chief executive Alison Porter, due to workload issues.
Mr Pratt confirmed that funding in the region of £200-£250,000 had been secured up until April 2016 after the conclusion of initial talks with growth minister Greg Clark.
The cash comes from central government and is match funded from LEPs, with some additional support from business. It will pay for a new chief executive, communications, events and best practice sharing.
The Government is committed to providing the LEP Network with £78,000 next year.
Mr Pratt added that talks would continue after the election about how the Network can continue to best represent and coordinate the work of the local enterprise bodies.
Mr Pratt himself is stepping down at the end of March from the LEP Network with a new chair and other fresh appointments to the board likely to follow in April.