So, where are we now, after submissions to Whitehall have been made with proposals for 57 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs)? In short, faced with many unanswered questions.
Vince Cable (Business Secretary) has said that only 15 to 20 of these will pass muster, and initial indications from Government are that the best of the proposals could be given the green light to go ahead sooner rather than later. It follows that many more require further details or reconsideration before they are found acceptable. Bearing in mind that Mr Cable has said he believes the upper limit for the total number of LEPs should be 30, it looks likely that many will fall by the wayside, at least in their current proposed forms.
As to how soon "early" approval is we do not know, but surely it cannot be before the comprehensive spending review is announced on 20 October and the White Paper on subnational economic growth is published? One wonders whether the first LEPs out of the blocks will be regarded as pilots - a suggestion which has attracted criticism from those who just want to get on with moving forward. As LEPs are to be successors to the regional development agencies, do we not have to wait for the legislation for their abolition and transfer of powers? Moreover, we need to know the detail of their roles and responsibilities which have not yet been worked out. All this and more is to be addressed in new legislation, the promised Decentralisation and Localism Bill.
One of the next big questions is how will the LEPs be structured? There is a strong argument for them being legal entities in their own right, constituted in some existing or new legal structure. Many will say that without this they will lack credibility and capacity to deliver and will run the danger of becoming talking shops. And that is just what the Government say they should not be. But it's hard to see how this squares with Eric Pickles' aspirations for the LEPs to be "loose associations" - that is a loose association of local authorities with local businesses.
What powers and responsibilities?
It may be that the formal legal structure of the LEPs can only be resolved when it is clear what powers and responsibilities they will have. If the "loose association" model is what results, then powers and responsibilities, at least so far as public accountability is concerned, will have to remain in the local authority partners to the LEPs. As a loose association, a LEP would be able to provide strategic direction and ideas, and be a facilitator, but may lack any real teeth. On the other hand, with real powers and real responsibilities, vested in an independent organisation, LEPs can become delivery bodies - rising above the local politics of the local government constituency of the partnership.
How will they be funded?
And the elephant in the room? Funding. The questions around powers and responsibilities and legal structure are inextricably linked with funding. The availability of funding will define the purpose and with it the credibility and capacity of the LEPs. Without adequate funding, they will not be able to be delivery bodies, and will have to assume the role of strategic facilitators. On the question of funding, a distinction needs to be made between capital and revenue funding, and funding for the administration of the functions of the LEPs. An acceptance by local government (facing extensive public sector funding cuts) and/or local businesses of the cost of staffing and administering the LEPs and whether either or both will be prepared to take this on, seems to be significantly dependent on what the role and responsibilities of the LEPs will be. Suffice to say, it is hard to see local businesses being prepared to put anything substantial by way of resources into LEPs unless they can see real value being delivered by the LEP's activities.
What about the regional growth fund?
It is maybe wrong to think that the regional growth fund will be the answer to the funding question, particularly given its deputy chairman, Sir Ian Wrigglesworth has said that funding will be directed towards the private sector and is unlikely to fund LEPs. Speaking at a fringe event at this week's Liberal Democrat party conference he is quoted as saying "I don't think either the LEPs or the public sector is going to be the prime source of where the growth fund is going to be . it will be directed towards the private sector, I expect. The purpose of the fund is to build up the private sector in areas where the public sector is too dominant. It's not our job in my view to be building roads and other infrastructure - that's not our responsibility. We need to be focused much more on building up individual businesses - that's where I think we can make a difference". (As an aside, it will be interesting to see how funding direct to business is going to get over the State Aid hurdle).
So where to next?
Well, we look to Ministers to whom the proposals have been submitted. They will be considering in detail the submissions made and will be providing feedback to the proposers, they say prior to publication of the White Paper an introduction of the Localism Bill, which we hope will be brought before Parliament in October.