North East Devolution and Levelling Up
Penshaw Monument

North East LEP welcomes clarity on new role. Really?

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) made an odd choice when it selected this week to issue a statement welcoming clarification of its new role.

Just as the Conservative Party was gearing up for the election process that will result in a new leader and the nation was waiting to learn who its new Prime Minister will be, NELEP’s chief executive, Helen Golightly, chose the moment to speak up.

‘Strategic direction’ she said, ‘is what keeps our ship steady during times of change. And the next 12 months will undoubtedly bring more change for not just the LEP, but for wider regional governance as our local and combined authorities work towards securing greater devolution powers and funding to the region.

‘The role of the North East LEP within that process has been made clear to us. Government’s Levelling Up White Paper was published in February 2022 and provided details about the outcome of a review of the future role for all LEPs.

‘It states that there is a strong role for LEPs moving forward to continue to focus on economic development activities with our partners, and as greater devolved powers are secured, government wants LEPs to transition into mayoral combined authority and/or county deal structures to ensure continued regional focus and alignment.

‘For us this clarification has been welcomed.’

In its new role, reflected in its 2022/23 delivery plan, NELEP will, said the statement:

  • Represent the business voice;
  • Lead strategic economic planning;
  • Improve skills;
  • Grow businesses; and
  • Manage funds.

COMMENT

Ms Golightly’s statement may be a commendable attempt to steady the ship, but at the moment that ship is sailing among reefs on all sides. She is almost certainly correct that the next 12 months will bring more change for the LEP and wider regional governance (though stagnation is also a possibility).

But she is premature and over-optimistic to talk of clarification of the LEP’s role.  The new role of which she speaks is based on a Levelling Up White Paper published by a Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, who was sacked by Boris Johnson and is not in the race to replace him.

Among those who are, the phrase ‘levelling up’ is toxic, according to Northern Agenda – though we will have to wait and see how the levelling up positions of the final two run-off candidates develop over the summer.

The only thing that is certain about regional development policy and wider regional governance at the moment is that it is not certain.

It is not certain, pace Ms Golightly, that our local and combined authorities will secure greater devolution powers and funding for the region. And it is not certain that there is a strong role for LEPs moving forward. Those were Michael Gove’s policies, with Boris Johnson’s acquiescence. Who knows what the new government’s will be.

February 2, when the White Paper with its four objectives and 12 national missions, was published already seems like another – and more optimistic – era. Almost the only question in what, looking back now, seem like relatively heady days was how much funding would be devoted to the process.

Today we know that Kemi Badenoch, who was a minister in Gove’s Levelling Up Department and who at the time of writing has made it into the last six in the leadership contest, believes in ‘limited government.’ It is not surprising that the 20 MPs whose backing she needed to secure her place on the ballot included not one from the north of England.

In this political atmosphere it was probably not wise for Ms Golightly to boast in her statement that: ‘When I started, we were a small team of six people and now we are a team of more than 60 people.’ Quangos with mushrooming staff levels are not the flavour of the moment in today’s Conservative Party.

Nor are the Conservative reefs at Westminster the only ones that threaten the whole current institutional apparatus of regional and/or local development including LEPs as well as devolution and metro mayors. Here in the North East the Labour Party’s approach remains uncertain.

We know that council leaders have been negotiating a new expanded devolution deal with the government for the six local authorities in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear and perhaps (but probably not) also including County Durham, supposedly worth £3bn over 30 years.

But that is about all we do know, as the leaders are keeping all information as tightly to themselves as they can within their secretive LA7 group, which this website has repeatedly complained issues no agendas, reports or minutes.

NELEP cannot necessarily rely on the support of these council leaders. As this website revealed on April 10, they sometimes don’t even bother turning up for its board meetings in sufficient numbers to form a quorum.

There has been absolutely no hint, in public anyway, from the three councils south of the Tyne – Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – of their attitude towards a new devolution deal. They are the ones that matter because they are the ones that must change their minds, having rejected a deal in 2016.

They may jump at the chance to use a new government approach threatening even less devolved power and funding as an excuse to reject a deal again. What an irony it would be if the North East’s interests fell foul of a combination of Tory right-wing tax cutters at Westminster and stubborn Labour councillors in the region’s town halls.

Strategic direction, as Ms Golightly says, may be what keep the ship steady during times of change. But that only applies to institutions that can steer their own course through the shoals. If a new government withdraws its support from LEPs they will go the same way as regional development agencies in 2010, if not by being axed then by being left to wither away. Whatever happens, they seem unlikely to be around after the next general election.