Thursday, 25 November 2010

Time to end Lancashire’s LEP confusion

Graham Jones MP writes for E-Politix about the potential effects of a pan-Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership on businesses in the region.

Graham Jones secured a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament yesterday which attracted MPs from across the region and from all parties was a chance to discuss the process to date, and the potential effects of the creation of any future Local Enterprise Partnership in Lancashire. Lancashire has been so far left behind by the process which is intended to replace Regional Development Agencies with new LEPs.

There has been confusion over how the region should best be represented, with three competing proposals being rejected by the government on the basis that this would mean too many operating in one area. The status-quo is unacceptable, and must be resolved if we are to take advantage of the £1.4billion Regional Growth Fund, £580 million in capital and the following £840million to be laid on over the next three years.

So beyond the rejection of multiple LEPs, the debate rests on whether we should have a single, pan-Lancashire LEP or a division between the East and West of the County.

However the single proposal has little to commend it; what must be borne in mind is that the result must work best for the businesses and economy of both the East and West of the County, and that it must serve the purpose for which it is intended. An East/West division, or something along those lines has the benefit of reflecting a significant local economy.

Pennine-Lancashire has a population of over half a million people, and an economy worth £7billion a year – greater than many cities. Importantly this proposal would reflect the wishes of 70% of businesses in East Lancashire.

The simplicity of a single pan-Lancashire LEP obscures what is really at work, namely an attempt to exercise control by a power-hungry Tory County Council.

Calling it pan-Lancashire hardly changes the fact that Blackburn is going in with Greater Manchester, and Blackpool probably feels as strongly and I would not be surprised to see them look to Northern Ireland rather than County Hall! Behind the scenes there is an attempt to exercise political control over what is supposed to be an organic and economic structure.

I recently raised the issue in Parliament over my concerns that the pan-Lancashire proposal will unduly centralise any future LEP, and not reflect the wishes of businesses in Lancashire who see value in two separate East and West Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnerships.

The East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce has backed the Pennine-Lancashire LEP bid, calling it “an opportunity to move from geographical to economic argument”. The very purpose of LEPs is to move away from the nominally arbitrary boundaries of RDAs, and towards zones which reflect the natural local economies of the country.

What must be avoided in Lancashire is replacing these arbitrary RDA boundaries with – what is in economic terms – an equally arbitrary political boundary.