North East Devolution and Levelling Up
Penshaw Monument

LEPs to burn on Truss’s bonfire?

Quangos have quickly and predictably – indeed, as predicted here on July 14 – come under the spotlight in the Conservative Party leadership race, raising new uncertainty over the future of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) and other LEPs.

According has the Sunday Telegraph Liz Truss, one of the candidates to be Prime Minister, has pledged to embark on a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and divert hundreds of millions of pounds from ‘bureaucratic bodies’ to frontline services.

The Foreign Secretary, according to the ConservativeHome news website, said that too many quangos ‘aren’t delivering for the public’ and she would review all government bodies and ‘expunge those that aren’t fit for purpose’.

ConservativeHome reports that a review of quangos is currently being undertaken by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit Opportunities Minister, who has asked each secretary of state to provide a list of government bodies that could be merged or closed, including cases in which their functions ‘could be provided by organisations other than the state.’

COMMENT

Exactly which quangos Truss has in mind is not known. Probably she doesn’t know herself. Just what is a quango anyway? Do LEPs qualify for an unwanted place on Truss’s chopping block?

There is ministerial talk of transferring functions to organisations other than the state. Are LEPs state organsations or not? They are hybrid and non-statutory. NELEP is led by a board with seven private sector members, seven local authority representatives, including the vice-chair, three from higher and further education, including the chair, and one from the voluntary sector.

It is funded largely by the state, mainly until recently in the form of a £270m local growth fund grant which expired last year. Its staffing has grown from six people to 60 in ten years.

Is NELEP fit for purpose? That is arguable. It has had a hand in major projects of benefit to the North East, including Pilgrim Street East, the Helix and the Stephenson Quarter in Newcastle, Gateshead Quays, Sunderland central business district, the International Advanced Manufacturing Park on the Sunderland-South Tyneside border, Metro station improvements, South Shields Transport Interchange, Horden Station and major road schemes.

On the other hand, it looks almost certain to miss most if not all of the jobs and productivity targets it set for itself in its ten-year Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) when it reaches its finishing line in 2024.

The clarification of the role of LEPs in the Levelling Up White Paper published in February when Michael Gove, now sacked, was Secretary of State and welcomed by NELEP on July 12, looks less and less worth the paper it was written on.

Quangos have long been favourite targets of Conservative politicians on the campaign trail, yet many remain. LEPs may survive unscathed, at least until the expiry of their ten-year SEPs in 2024, probably coinciding with the next general election. But they cannot but feel uneasy with their fates very possibly in the hands of Liz Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg.