RDA consultation is a total dog’s breakfast

Last week saw the deadline pass for local authorities and businesses to produce proposals for new, local regeneration bodies to succeed the eight regional development agencies outside London, allegedly replacing the “top-down prescription approach taken previously”.

Last week saw the deadline pass for local authorities and businesses to produce proposals for new, local regeneration bodies to succeed the eight regional development agencies outside London, allegedly replacing the “top-down prescription approach taken previously”.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) confirmed that 56 bids to establish Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) have been submitted – a seven-fold increase on the eight RDAs. Given the bulk of these submissions are likely to get approved, it now makes ministerial rhetoric about a “bonfire of the quangos” sound a bit silly.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles and business secretary Vince Cable are left to make sense of a jigsaw puzzle of asymmetric suggestions that tend to reflect local loyalties and rivalries as readily as the resemble obvious economic units. Rather than “artificial political regions”, we are faced with a plethora of cities and counties wrestling for control over economic development.

Some of the LEP models reflect existing working patterns, particularly in established city-region areas like Greater Manchester and Leeds. Others, however, are more freeform. Some are entirely contradictory.

We should not be surprised. The summer is never the most propitious time to shape new policy or conduct high-level negotiations and serious consultation. But that is what regeneration chiefs across England were forced to spend July and August trying to do. To, it seems, mixed fortunes.

Take Lancashire. The County Council supports a single LEP for the whole county while the district councils want to split along east-west lines, allowing the very different economies of the Fylde coast and the former textile towns of east Lancashire to do their own thing. So three separate bids for the county have been submitted.

Further south, land and property giant, Peel Holdings, submitted its own suggestion based on an Atlantic Gateway model incorporating Liverpool, north Cheshire and Manchester. This suggestion would have cut across three other proposed LEP boundaries. The plan was subsequently withdrawn 48 hours later, adding to an impression that efforts to arrive at economically and intellectually coherent proposals are somewhat disjointed. Meanwhile across In Yorkshire, there is talk of a new region-wide body providing business support. Plus ca change?

The role of the private sector in the new LEPs remains opaque. There are significant reservations from business representatives who fear LEPs will become town hall fiefs – precisely the point of driving economic development from the regional level in the first place. Former Labour minister and CBI Director-General, Lord Digby Jones, warned that some RDAs had delivered “brilliant work” and that “throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the answer”.

The CBI added:

“Some business leaders fear they will turn out to be no more than council-dominated talking shops with no sense of strategic priorities and little economic impact.”

Business representatives are giving evidence to the BIS select committee today.

So what next? Well, the 56 bids will be assessed and lucky winners announced in next month’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Exactly what criteria ministers will use to determine which get the nod and which do not remains hazy. But as the point of this entire exercise was to leave the exact composition of LEPs in the hands of local decision-makers, correcting bids from the centre is hardly in the spirit of things.

A bag of broken biscuits is the most likely outcome. The Government will doubtless herald the lumpy, misshapen result as a reflection of genuine need, rather than the ‘artificial’ regional boundaries of the past. But it will leave LEPs as sickly new bodies. They will be shorn of some of the more important functions that RDAs currently discharge such as inward investment, access to finance, innovation and sector leadership. These will be beamed up to the BIS mothership to give Vince Cable some more toys to play with, ensuring crucial economic levers will in future be pulled by civil servants sat in Whitehall rather than people on the ground. So much, then, for “localism” too.

And to add insult to injury, it seems London will retain a city-wide approach to economic development. The obvious inequity of the capital retaining its agency when the rest of the country see theirs broken into smaller pieces speaks volumes about how the government plans to tackle the output gap between Greater London and the rest of the country. If anything, it will now get wider. LEPs simply will not have the heft or resources to help recalibrate our lopsided economic geography, where power, wealth and opportunity slope inexorably towards London and the south east. Ministerial assurances that doing so is an “urgent” national priority ring hollow.

RDAs also had a vital role in helping give the English regions scale to compete with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In future the Lilliputian resources of much smaller LEPs will be pitted against nations with their own governments. Watch out for the English regions losing out on inward investment deals to their Scottish and Welsh neighbours.

The desire to rearrange the regional deckchairs while the economy sails through perilous waters speaks volumes about the coalition’s economic judgement.

What is clear is that we are to be left with a profusion of smaller, disjointed, less strategic bodies, on the frontline of mitigating the deepest recession since the 30s and the sharpest retrenchment in public spending in living memory with just a fraction of the resources currently expended on English regional economic development.

All in all, a total dog’s breakfast.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.