The findings come in a new Grant Thornton UK LLP and County Councils Network (CCN) report, ‘Capitalising on the Industrial Strategy’, due to be released today. Both organisations argue that counties will play a crucial role in shaping localised industrial strategies but the government’s LEP review provides an opportunity to make the case for positive change. Download it here.
The findings from a recent CCN survey of its member authorities, which are featured in the report, reveal:
CCN and Grant Thornton argue that the results show that county authorities LEPs are clearly here to stay and the majority of their members work very well with their LEPs. But they say LEP boundaries in rural England should be re-drawn so they align with county councils and local priorities – to better direct funding and priorities to specific areas, and ensure that localised industrial strategies are successful.
Currently, only six counties share a co-terminous boundary with their LEP. For the remaining 31 counties in England, this means working alongside several different LEPs, or working with a LEP that covers a whole region. Grant Thornton argues that it ‘is not realistic’ to expect local councils to engage with more than one LEP.
CCN says this creates confusion for local business, occasionally leads to competing and differing priorities over investment and growth initiatives. Having boundaries aligned with the county or upper-tier local authority in an area is simpler and more transparent for government, businesses, and people, aligning the local councils’ priorities with the LEPs’.
The government’s LEP review provides the opportunity to reset LEP boundaries, and look to reform these bodies so they are more transparent – with a majority of county leaders believing that they are ‘democratically unaccountable.’
Elsewhere, the report includes the write-up of a recent roundtable featuring key figures within local government and leaders of some of England’s largest councils, who fear that much of domestic and Brexit policy, so far, overlooks counties.
Figures produced by Grant Thornton illustrate why the 37 counties in England should be firmly part of the conversation: collectively they contain 15.7million working age people, almost 11million employees, and over 1.1million businesses.
The report argues that Brexit offers the opportunity for counties to ‘reset the dial’ on their ambitions, but this must be backed by infrastructure investment and devolved powers, to grow local economies and attract inward investment.
It also argues that counties will be essential to the success of the government’s national industrial strategy, but that policy and investment must move beyond the cities, to ensure that counties have the skilled workforce to do the jobs of tomorrow and the hard and digital infrastructure for their businesses.
Grant Thornton’s analysis shows that average county download speeds lag some 16.4 mbits/s behind their neighbouring non-county unitary authorities; this gap must be bridged if counties are to attract new business.
Cllr Philip Atkins, vice-chairman of the County Councils Network, said:
“We know LEPs are here to stay, and county leaders have built up a strong local relationship with their business leaders over the past eight years. Counties know their local economies intimately and are responsible for the things that matter to business – infrastructure, skills and transport – and they are large enough to do business nationally: they should be asked to spearhead economic growth alongside local business leaders on LEPs.
“However, these councillors are clear: if we are to seize the moment and take back control of our economic futures through successful localised industrial strategies, LEP boundaries should be reviewed, and they should be shaped by local areas.
“Reducing the complexity of LEP geographies will be good for business and good for local economies; simplifying overlapping boundaries which creates confusion, and in some cases, makes joint investment and targeted investment harder, with differing LEPs naturally having differing priorities and different needs.
“That is why I work with many LEPs both in and around Staffordshire, and enjoy good relationships with them. I think everyone would be in agreement that the system could be made simpler, however. Redrawing LEP boundaries and wider system reform, coupled with a wider rural focus in government domestic and Brexit policy, will allow counties to capitalise on the ‘place-based’ ethos of the industrial strategy.”
Guy Clifton, head of local government advisory, Grant Thornton UK LLP, said:
“If the Industrial Strategy is to achieve its objectives it must be locally led, but for this to succeed LEP geographies need to properly reflect local economies and local political reality. It’s simply not realistic to expect local authorities, slimmed down after over half a decade of austerity, to engage with more than one LEP. Local leaders represent their communities and are rooted in their places and so need to be at the heart of decision making, not an adjunct to it. The precise geography of LEPs going forward, whether single county or cross county, should be shaped by local leaders and what works for them, not devised in Whitehall.
“To effectively deliver on the Industrial Strategy, it’s clear that there needs to be collaborative partnerships between local leaders in the public, private and voluntary sector. The partnership needs to focus on attracting young people to county areas with high skilled jobs, developing the right housing and infrastructure, and ensuring that there is a properly paid, mobile and agile work force to support the ageing demographic in country areas.”