Last week in the House of Commons, Sally-Ann Hart the MP for Hasting set up this debate about the LEPs which are the agencies that the Conservative dominated coalition Government established after they had closed down the Regional Assemblies and Development Agencies. My own experience was as a member of the South East England RA (SEERA) which was closely linked to the SEEDA. One of the strengths of the SEERA and SEEDA is that they covered a much wider range of space than any of the LEPs and they covered the whole of England. The fact that LEPs are much smaller, means that the border challenges are more common and indeed there are locations in England that are not covered by an LEP. Indeed there are also some small areas such as Lewes District which is covered by two LEPs. One of the challenges that businesses face is that depending on where they are based, they can get offers publicised but because they are over the border, they cannot benefit. No doubt the same was true during the time of the Development Agencies but it was not so noticeable to many businesses inside the DA’s due to the size of them and the complete coverage. Nevertheless the source of the debate last week was as expressed by Sally-Ann at the beginning of her debate.
I am delighted to have secured the debate at such a critical time for local enterprise partnerships, when strategic, business-led, local economic growth remains in rather a state of suspended animation following the LEP review. In East Sussex, we have been well-served by LEPs over the past 10 years and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up recognised and affirmed the vital role that LEPs can continue to play in the recent levelling-up White Paper. It would have been all too easy for him to have looked for a headline and to have announced the creation of successor bodies, so I congratulate him for the leadership and common sense that he has shown on the issue.
That said, the sector is in limbo as it awaits clarity on its future role and, critically, confirmation of the funding it needs to fulfil it. That is creating an inability to plan, and the continued uncertainty has seen some of our most talented people leave LEPs. It is also having an impact on our business leaders, who give their time and experience in support of their local areas. They will not stay at the table for long if the uncertainty continues or if they do not feel valued.
Sadly with only one exception the contributions to the debate were all Conservative MPs apart from one short comment from a Labour MP. However at the end of the discussion Neil O’Brien the Government Minister stated the following which Sally-Ann Hart was grateful for. Her final sentence was “I was therefore delighted to hear the Minister’s confirmation that LEPs will continue and will be funded and that clarity will be provided soon.” It seems vital for all of us for this to emerge as soon as possible. Here is the end of Neil’s comment
Following the LEP review, which has concluded, we have clarity about the end state that we want to get to and why we want to continue to have LEPs: for that convening role, the private sector expertise, and the ability to broker lots of different local stakeholders and drive forward a wider strategic vision for the area. That is why we have chosen to keep LEPs and why I pay tribute to them today.
We appreciate the urgent need for certainty of the kind that various hon. Members have raised. We are working to provide that clarity to LEPs at the earliest opportunity. I am sure that Members will appreciate some of the wider pressures that the Government are facing, given the international situation. It has been useful to have this debate today and to be able to express my thanks and pay tribute to the work of LEPs. We will be in touch with our colleagues in LEPs in the very near future.