When I was asked to write this blog article, I was given a brief to ‘explain the importance of LEPs’. On the surface, this sounded like a relatively straightforward task, with one problem. All LEPs are different and all are important in different ways. This is undoubtedly a strength: LEPs are designed to respond to local economic priorities and meet the needs of local businesses. However, it does make the LEP landscape challenging to understand and navigate. In this blog, I’ve tried to strike a balance between providing information which applies to all LEPs and showing how LEPs work in practice, using my own Humber LEP as an example.
Local Enterprise Partnerships were established from April 2011 onwards as part of the coalition government’s localism agenda. Each LEPs represents a functional economic area – unlike the Regional Development Agencies they replaced, the boundaries of LEPs were decided by local partners rather than determined by central government. At their hearts, they are partnerships, which give local authorities, businesses and other key institutions such as universities and Chambers of Commerce a role in defining local priorities. These are set out in each area’s Strategic Economic Plan (SEP). These weighty documents describe the economic challenges faced by the local area and define areas where investment is needed to support future economic growth. The Humber LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan is based around three priority themes: a skilled and productive workforce, thriving successful businesses and an infrastructure that supports growth. A lot of LEP plans cover similar themes, but the emphasis is always on the local context and the needs of local business and communities.
LEPs either influence or directly control significant funding streams, which are invested in the priorities described in their SEP. To date, the Humber LEP, a medium sized LEP covering a population of 917,000, has directly invested over £150m in projects ranging from flood defence to equipment for colleges to grants for small businesses. The main sources of funding are European Structural and Investment Funds and the Local Growth Fund, a combined national budget which LEPs bid into on a competitive basis for funding for strategic projects. Even in areas with combined authorities and mayoral devolution deals, LEPs retain their influence over these funding streams, reflecting their role in driving economic growth.
Because we deliver some of the same national programmes and bid into the same national funding pots, a lot of LEPs deliver similar programmes or, at least, programmes with similar names, such as Growth Hubs or the Growing Places Fund. However, because of the emphasis on LEPs being able to respond to local needs, there are often local variation in how the programmes are delivered and how services are provided. A Growth Hub in a largely urban LEP where most of the businesses it supports are willing travel to a single centre will look very different to a rural Growth Hub where many of the clients are micro businesses scattered across a wide geographical area.
LEPs’ approaches to defining and supporting digital growth also vary widely. Some LEPs, such as Humber, have defined lists of “key” or “priority” sectors for growth or investment and have selected the digital sector as a priority. Others pick up digital projects via a broader thematic approach, focusing for example on “supporting small business” or “promoting innovation”.
In the Humber, we have an industry led Digital Sector Group, which sets priorities for support and investment. The current focus is on supporting small and medium businesses to innovate and grow through better use of technology and on promoting the Humber as a place to bases a digital business. The Humber tech sector is a rapidly growing sector in its own right, with vibrant support networks helping companies to take advantage of our first class connectivity and competitive cost base. However, we also recognise that digital skills and technologies underpin growth across the whole economy. We’ve also supported the growth of the digital sector by investing in the fit out of the new Centre for Digital Innovation and supporting colleges to realign their curriculum to meet the needs of the digital sector through investments in new equipment.
We recognise that LEPs can’t operate in isolation and we work very closely with Tech North, other LEPs, Universities and colleges, the NHS, private sector business and tech communities and ecosystems to achieve our goals. We’re delighted to be part of the Digital Leaders LEP Steering Group and look forward to working with many of you in the future.