The Lep Network underwent something of a revamp earlier this year, with Alex Pratt stepping in as chair of its newly created management board. Mr Pratt outlines his views on Leps and their relationship with FE and skills
Leps are a bold attempt to arrest the long term trend of economic centralisation by rebalancing strategic influence over the factors of production.
It is no accident that the 39 Leps have swung behind efforts to boost, broaden and breathe life into apprenticeship, internship and work placement programmes and to try and make sense of the changing schools and skills landscape.
Any economic development strategy that has no core regard for the available workforce would be built on sand, which is why the Association of Colleges, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and the Education and Training Foundation were among the first in discussions held by the new Lep Network.
The Leps may have started with what appears to be little more than delegated authority over the initial £2bn per annum Local Growth Fund, but the clear aspiration is for devolution of funds and freedoms to empower places to make better and faster decisions on matters of local economic importance that impact directly on jobs and growth
The extent to which Neets are a major factor in a local economy varies greatly between Leps
The well-spring of added-value is the private sector, which mixes labour, land and capital together. It doesn’t therefore take a rocket economist to see a clear line of sight between education and skills, and jobs and growth.
I have yet to find a Lep chair who does not believe one essential component of any sustainable long term competitive economy to be an education and skills system fit for the realities of the 21st Century economy.
There is further unanimity around the need for fantastic information advice and guidance.
What may well draw you to your Lep just now is its newfound influence over FE capital and European Structural Investment Funds and the realistic prospect of further skills budget devolution, but the learning sector and Leps are natural allies in the need to rebalance aspirations more towards the vocational, practically useful opportunities that are emerging from the internet of things and other disruptive economic forces in the global economy.
In working with the 39 different Leps it is worth remembering that we are each unique in a multitude of ways; size, priorities, opportunities, governance, politics, business-base etc.
The Leps are less like a herd of tame cows of different sizes, and more like 39 different wild animals, from an elephant to an eagle. This makes the Lep Network a game reserve, a place to connect and grow all 39 Leps, while each one roams wild, free and behaves as it sees fit.
The very point of Leps is for us to take a more relevant localised look at the relative importance of different factors.
While every young person not in education, employment or training (Neet) is a significant issue for the individuals involved, the extent to which Neets are a major factor in a local economy varies greatly between Leps.
My own Lep is for example focussing on the small, but growing cohort of grade A students who are opting out of higher education, strengthening the resolve of struggling students by carefully profiling them, and working to bring cyber security skills up the food chain of essential 21st Century life skills. Every Lep has its own focus and priorities.
It would be a mistake therefore to adopt a network-wide approach — one few are making, judging by the positive noises about our early doors work together and it also shows the need to get the balance right between localism and great practice, to avoid 39 re-inventions of every wheel. Providers operating in different places will not find their Lep relationships to be consistent.
The Leps may be the new kids on the economic block but they have strong cross-party support and look set to be an increasingly important locus for influence on all matters growth. I wager we are more likely to lose Scotland, leave the EU, or see the collapse of the Euro, than to witness the demise of Leps within the next nine years.
Alex Pratt OBE, Chair of the management board of the Local Enterprise Partnership (Lep) Network,
chair of the Bucks Thames Valley Lep