West of England’s LEP funding withheld amid political infighting

WECA is the only mayoral combined authority that has not integrated its local enterprise partnership

WECA is the only mayoral combined authority that has not integrated its local enterprise partnership

15 Mar 2024, 10:31

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Infighting between councils and the mayor of the West of England has led to an uncertain future for a body that gives local businesses a say on the region’s skills strategies.

The government has told the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) that it will withhold £240,000 in funding for the region’s local enterprise partnership (LEP) in 2024-25 because the authority has failed to formulate a plan to absorb its functions.

According to a report before a WECA committee this week, the constituent authorities have “differences of opinion” with regional mayor Dan Norris on what the future LEP should look like.

It adds: “As a result, no integration plan has yet been submitted and it is anticipated that government will withhold the £240,000 funding until progress is made.”

In August last year, the government told LEP chairs, councils and combined mayor authorities that financial support for LEPs would end in April, save for “some revenue funding” for them to be integrated in 2024-25.

However, WECA is the only mayoral combined authority in England that has not already absorbed its LEP’s functions into a new board or committee dedicated to business and skills.

The report comes a week after the government issued a best value notice, warning that a “poor state of professional relationships” between WECA and its constituent councils means there is a lack of “clear, shared narrative” for the region.

Peterborough and Cambridgeshire Combined Authority has also been issued with a best value notice due to “significant questions on the culture, behaviour and integrity” of its leadership, but the notice did not specify whether the issues have impacted the delivery of adult education in the region.

Run by Labour mayor Norris since 2021, WECA is responsible for adult education, transport and housing strategy across three councils: Bristol City, Bath and North East Somerset, and South Gloucestershire.

In a letter published last week, the government said WECA’s problems – first raised by auditors in 2022 – are yet to be resolved and ordered the appointment of an independent improvement panel.

‘More pressing is how business is going to be represented’

Launched across the country in the early 2010s, LEPs were bodies that brought local business, political and academic leaders together to shape skills priorities and local economic growth.

But the further steps towards regional devolution in the government’s levelling up white paper published two years ago said LEPs should be absorbed into mayoral authorities.

Although there is no indication that political disagreements have impacted on how effectively WECA’s £16 million adult education budget is being spent, the disagreement over the LEP’s future suggests that regional coordination on skills could be hindered by the political row.

In exchange for government funding in 2024-25, England’s eight other combined mayoral authorities and the Greater London Authority have all already set up new “business boards” that absorbed their local LEPs’ functions last year.

WECA is now likely to use the LEP’s reserves to cover the running costs of operating the partnership, which amount to more than £1 million a year.

The West of England LEP has a role in managing £1.2 million on careers hubs and creative industry “scale ups” that includes training for businesses.

Members of West of England’s LEP, which include representatives from Airbus’s Bristol plant, the Bristol Port Company and regional council leaders were concerned by the potential loss of the partnership, which has run for more than a decade.

Minutes of a LEP board meeting last year say that without setting up a new board at WECA “the constructive challenge and support to ideas would be lost”.

Speaking to FE Week, chair of WECA’s overview and scrutiny committee chair, which reviews the work of the combined authority, Ed Plowden said: “£240,000 is not a huge amount, more pressing is how the business community is going to be represented.”

He said a key “contentious issue” is whether neighbouring North Somerset – which is not a member of WECA – is allowed to remain a member of the board that would replace the LEP.

A spokesperson for North Somerset told FE Week its leader Mike Bell has written to the government to complain that WECA’s mayor has only offered his council “affiliate membership” of the board, despite its significant role in the regional economy.

The spokesperson added: “North Somerset will bring key partners to the business board with both the Bristol Port Company and Bristol Airport as well as key neighbouring developments such as Hinkley Point C and the newly announced £4 billion gigafactory.”

Tensions appear to remain high between the mayor and local council leaders, with Norris accusing Lib Dem councillors on Bath and North Somerset Council of being “party political” rather than collaborating on regional strategy at a scrutiny meeting this week.

Formed in 2017, WECA has had control of its £16 million annual adult education budget since 2019. In 2025-26, it is also expected to oversee about £14 million in spending on skills bootcamps and other training programmes.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, WECA, and its constituent councils were approached comment.

‘Adult education is [viewed as] the least interesting area’

Green Party councillor Christine Townsend, who chairs a Bristol City Council scrutiny committee, said the disagreement between Norris and WECA’s constituent councils is down to “ego”.

She added: “It’s as simple as that. The [WECA] mayor doesn’t like the other [Bristol] mayor even though they’re both red. One wouldn’t give the other one an underground [train system] even though it was a fantasy nonsense, it’s pathetic.

“That’s between mayors in the same political party, they’ve been told to ‘play nice’ together.”

Councillor Townsend began investigating WECA’s adult education service two years ago after becoming concerned about whether young people with learning difficulties were falling through the gaps.

She told FE Week: “WECA is responsible for three areas, transport, housing and adult education and skills – but adult education is [viewed as] the least interesting, the least sexy. It’s the smallest team.”

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