Monday, 6 September 2010

Cornwall's LEP bid - a bit of a curate's egg

Cornwall Council has today published its bid for a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) based on Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Whilst the document has the support some of the great and the good, I think it is deeply flawed in a number of key respects - particularly over who will lead it and who will be part of the decision making structure.

First the good news. It's a coherent bid for an LEP that distinguishes Cornwall from Devon and 'the South West'. It has also attracted the support of the Council of the Isles of Scilly who clearly want to be part of a joint programme with Cornwall.

But...

- Private sector leadership

Despite the warning on page 30 that:
"if it is to succeed the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Enterprise Partnership must represent a straightforward partnership between the public and private sector. It must have clear lines of accountability, a strong remit, and the power to deliver,"
those clear lines of accountability are pretty vague. The document states (p10):
"We expect the private sector to chair and lead our LEP"
Indeed the 'key principles' (p10) state:
"• Business will be at the heart of the governance and delivery structures. • Decisions on economic priorities and investment will be made locally. • The governance arrangements will be strategic and focussed on a narrow range of economic outcomes and sustainable growth. • The delivery of our economic strategy will be undertaken through the use of both the private sector and the Cornwall Development Company (CDC), itself private sector led, with a private sector chair and a majority of private sector directors."
So despite the fact that the vast majority of the money that will be spent by the LEP will be public money, it will be a private sector quango that will be making the decisions. Yes, it will be a local quango, but it seems that the key ingredients of democratic accountability and transparency are missing.

Whilst membership of the LEP will be based on "ability, influence and a commitment to make a difference" (p22), these are pretty vague concepts and need proper explanation.

For all that the Council carried out a detailed public survey before they wrote the bid, this was one crucial aspect that they failed to address.

- Voluntary sector involvement.

Despite the endorsement of the chairman of the Voluntary Sector Forum, the bid document has little to say about the third sector. There's no mention in the 'Wider collaboration' section (p11) or in the chapter on 'Key Principles' and, although there is reference in the section discussing past successes (p15), there is only a fleeting reference to"
"using the best abilities of the private, public and third sector"
in any reference to the future. The current CEF has third sector involvement. One of the keys to the new LEP will be to ensure that it retains this aspect.

- Big ambitions?

For all the talk of localism:
"We strongly support the Government’s policy of decentralisation and localism" (p17),
it seems that those behind the LEP might have wider ambitions. The sentence:
"If successful, we see no reason why we couldn’t in future be in a position to tender for work outside our LEP boundaries." (p23)
gives the game away. Despite all the problems that Cornwall faced as a small cog in the South West Regional Development Agency, the authors of this bid appear keen to repeat the experiment by extending the reach of Cornwall's LEP across the Tamar. Presumably, they think that this doesn't matter, so long as Cornwall is in charge. But the whole point of the Cornwall and IoS LEP bid is that it should be free to concentrate solely on the best interests of the two council areas. As soon as the LEP quango stretches its tentacles, that guarantee disappears.

And so, for all the opportunities given to us by the Government in abolishing the RDA and creating the LEP structure, it seems to me that Cornwall's Conservative leadership have blown their chance in key respects.

We are told that the LEP process has been extended and the submission is a 'work in progress'. That's fine, but I think that the Council has jumped and come down on the wrong side of several key questions.

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