If local enterprise partnerships are to receive more funding, there has to be a way of measuring their impact locally. And they must demonstrate a working relationship with local education providers at all levels, including FE, says Adrian Bailey
The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee has just completed its second report into local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).
Our first report, published in 2010, pointed to a lack of funding, understanding of their role and how they would impact on a variety of small organisations. Eighteen months on and these are still major obstacles inhibiting the partnerships’ ability to drive local growth.
While the government has provided some funding and helped with denominating local enterprise zones within some, too many LEPs are still dependent on local authorities for support, contradicting the rationale behind their creation. And as regional growth fund bids are often carried out independently of LEPs, their roles are often reduced to essentially that of advisers not drivers.
A positive development has been good working relationships between local authorities and some partnerships. They need each other, and the LEP structure — with representatives from BIS — can provide a valuable forum for mutual understanding and support.
The committee sees a valuable role for FE on LEPs. Skills are an essential part of any regional growth agenda. In theory, a local board comprising business representatives alongside public sector representatives, including those from the higher education and FE sectors, should be an ideal base for developing a skills agenda to match local skills needs.
To date, progress has been variable.
It is not always clear that LEP business members represent all businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. Direct FE representation is also rare, something that concerns the Association of Colleges, which feels that the potential contribution from the sector is unrecognised.
There is an increasing awareness in government that economic success must be built on a close relationship between education and business”
Help is at hand. To the rescue of LEPs rides the champion of regional growth, Lord Heseltine. His report, No Stone Unturned, advocates that various funding pots from different departments be pooled to provide LEPs with a £58bn boost.
While different government departments are reported as digging their heels in, the Chancellor has committed himself to backing this recommendation.
The Treasury usually wins these battles, but how committed are his officials to fighting this battle over and above planned cuts? Only time will tell.
Potentially, LEPs have gone from minor players with a begging bowl to key regional drivers armed with transformational resources.
Lord Heseltine himself acknowledged that many LEPs are not currently in a position to handle this money. Logically they must prove themselves before being entrusted to this level of taxpayer funding.
This is where the recommendations of the select committee are relevant, particularly with regard to skills and the FE sector.
If LEPs are to receive more funding there has to be a way of measuring their impact locally. They must demonstrate a working relationship with appropriate local education providers at all levels, including FE.
The committee decided it did not want to be too prescriptive over representation at board level, conscious that representation alone does not guarantee delivery and that alternative models of engagement might work.
What is important is that whatever approach is used, LEPs should be able to demonstrate that skills levels are improving and that the needs of business are being met.
LEPs should also be the responsibility of one minister in one department empowered to demand best practice from LEPs and the capacity to demonstrate it to others.
There is an increasing awareness in government that economic success must be built on a close relationship between education and business.
FE has a vital role here as regional economic growth will come from developing regional educational and business eco-systems.
The Heseltine/LEP strategy has the vision to do this. The issue is whether the LEPs can grasp the opportunity. My committee report points the way. Will the government and LEPs follow?
Adrian Bailey MP, chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee