Thursday, 25 November 2010

Last night’s debate showed a solution to Lancashire’s LEP woes remains distant

In last night’s Westminster Hall debate, Lancashire MPs and the Minister of State for Business and Enterprise – Mark Prisk – discussed the future of Lancashire’s Local Enterprise Partnership bid. I was left feeling optimistic that the possibility of a Pennine-Lancashire LEP, which reflected the economy and wishes of business, is still alive and well.

I secured the debate because the current situation is becoming untenable, both East and West Lancashire are losing out due to the absence of a serious proposal. But I simultaneously wanted to challenge what is becoming the consensus as to how to solve this; the so-called pan-Lancashire proposal.

A pan-Lancashire proposal would not reflect local economic realities, and does not have the support of business or local councils in the region.

As I said last night: “With a population of more than 500,000 people, the area is greater in size than many major UK cities and is similar in size or greater than some of the LEPs already approved. The area is characterised by a strong manufacturing base and entrepreneurial people. More than 21% of employment in the area is in the manufacturing sector, compared with 10% in the UK as a whole. Self-employment rates are significantly higher than regional and national levels. Despite not having a dominant city centre, the area collectively contributes more than £6 billion gross value added to the economy each year.”

There is a clear case to be made for Pennine-Lancashire as a separate LEP, socio-economically, East Lancashire functions well independently of the whole of Lancashire. As the very purpose of a Local Economic Partnership is to replace the arbitrary boundaries of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) with bodies reflecting ‘natural economies’, a Pennine-Lancashire LEP would fulfil the very purpose of replacing RDAs with LEPs.

Moreover, independent analysis has shown there to be over 200 high growth businesses that have achieved at least three years of continuous growth in East Lancashire, this is a massive success story, and something a Pennine-Lancashire Bid could support, in a way a pan-Lancashire bid would obscure.

But beyond this argument, there are also massive problems with the proposed county-wide bid, namely the fact that it is not county wide.

As I said last night: “I do not accept that there is a pan-Lancashire solution because Blackburn refused such proposals and had the common sense to look south to Manchester. Blackpool is hesitant on the matter. I shall come on to some of the conflicts that exist. We do not have a pan-Lancashire solution; we have a proposal based on three separate areas. The problem is that three proposals are being labelled as one proposal. We will all lose out. There is no pan-Lancashire solution-there never has been and there never will be. There is Lancashire county council, Blackburn borough council and Blackpool borough council.”

This is why I have referred to the pan-Lancashire proposal as a Swiss cheese proposal, because it is full of holes, it is not pan-Lancashire in any recognisable sense, and we must move away from this simplistic and emotive opposition to the breakup of Lancashire.

The fact is economically, Lancashire already functions in two halves. And as I noted in the debate last night, there are already two British Chamber of Commerce accredited Chambers of Commerce operating in Lancashire, one in the East and one in the West.

A pan-Lancashire proposal simply does not reflect the realities and desires of businesses on the ground. Indeed there is cross-party agreement on this, as my Conservative counterpart, the Honourable member for Pendle noted: “Lancashire is an historic county and there are many things that we can do by working together, and I applaud the work of the county council, but if LEPs are supposed to reflect natural economic areas, the case for Pennine Lancashire is fantastic. I hope that the Minister will set a decision date, and I urge him to bring the issue to a head.”

The good news is that the Minister of State has heard the concerns raised by myself and my counterparts in East Lancashire, and is willing to listen to alternatives to the pan-Lancashire proposal. Mr Prisk said: “I am mindful of the challenge.

Overall, we feel that the pan-Lancashire bid has some strong elements, but that the Pennine Lancashire bid also has good arguments in its favour. Neither is without its flaws. Like many hon. Members, I am keen to bring the matter to a conclusion without undue delay, so the Government are today asking partners involved in the competing bids to submit revised proposals no later than 8 December.”

I am glad that the Minister understands the value added by the Pennine-Lancashire bid, and I will continue to lobby for two independent LEPs operating in Lancashire. I am also glad that Mr Prisk sees the urgency in the need to resolve this issue, reflected by the December 8th deadline.

A full transcription of the debate is available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm101124/halltext/101124h0002.htm#10112454000383