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Viewpoint: The challenge facing the UK's regions

English regional government is for the chop.

The Conservatives, now in coalition, have long been hostile, favouring the county structure or unitary district and metropolitan borough councils. They fought the election pledging to scrap regional development agencies and to replace them with partnerships of local authorities and the private sector covering “real economic areas”.

This was a reaction against arbitrary regions created without reference to the real needs of the communities and economies they were supposed to serve. It should come as no surprise then that the coalition is ridding us of all regional government, including the Government Offices of the Regions and creating Local Enterprise Partnerships in its place.

Many in construction were sceptical about the value of English regional government. As an extra level of bureaucracy it seem designed to impede investment in infrastructure. Intended as a means of advising central government on sub-national economic development, in reality decisions were delayed while evidence was gathered and submitted to the regional funding allocation process.

That said a regional structure made some sense from an infrastructure point of view.

In transport, for example, where schemes worth between £5M and £75M could reasonably be thought of larger than local, but still sub-strategic (that is to say, of regional significance), there is a logic in an area such as the West Midlands, or the North East, coming together to decide on their priorities in terms of economic development. It is a shame that this logic was rarely translated into action.

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP), based on real economic areas, also have a logic. CECA wants to see these new bodies set up to tackle economic development on a suitable scale and as meaningful local authority - private sector partnerships.

“These new bodies must not be allowed to deteriorate into a facade of stakeholder consultation or become ineffectual talking shops”

They must not be allowed to deteriorate into a facade of stakeholder consultation or become ineffectual talking shops. Business must be allowed to bring leadership to the table in the shape of the real private sector - the successful men and women with the skills and experience and the vision to create environments for growth.

Local authorities should channel elected representation from the defined areas and bring the expertise of each level of government into the debate.

Central government must make funding available to the LEPs and define the responsibilities of the partners, especially ensuring they can avoid opt-ins and opt-outs following changes in political control at local authority level.

The boundaries imposed on the old regions often did not make sense on an economic level but, in the same vein, nor do the existing boundaries of county, district or metropolitan boroughs. Economic considerations will transcend existing boundaries and there is a case for LEPs to be smaller than the old regions, but common sense should mitigate against a rapid proliferation of a vast number of small, possibly single county LEPs.

Imagination and co-operation are going to be key to getting the scale right, especially in areas such as the Thames Gateway which could miss a unique opportunity if Kent and Essex County Councils fail to propose an LEP that serves this area, as they seem set to do.

Many examples exist across England of areas that are economically co-dependent but divided by administrative boundaries. The press is also filled with numerous stories of local authorities pursuing single-county LEPs or rejecting the prospect of working with their near neighbours.

The Department for Business Innovation & Skills and the Department of Communities and Local Government should ensure that the needs of these areas are handled imaginatively and that public sector territorial considerations come second to regional economic needs.

“LEPs will need to work effectively if these new structures are not going to risk short changing their communities on economic development”

The most encouraging thing so far about the LEPs is the proposal to make transport and infrastructure a clear part of their remit. What seems to be missing, and what we hope will be addressed in the Government’s forthcoming White Paper, is the mechanism to bring LEPs together at a sub-national level to argue for infrastructure that will aid economic development in areas the size of the West Midlands or the East of England.

These are considerations on a bigger scale than single authority areas and if the LEPs are too small, they risk being ineffective in removing the barriers to growth that exist in transport and infrastructure and also possibly in planning and housing.

LEPs could enable the coming together of local authorities to commission construction that meets their economic development agenda, working in partnership with the construction industry to achieve value for money and to eliminate the waste that still characterises much public sector procurement. LEPs themselves will need to work effectively if these new structures are not going to risk short changing their communities on economic development.

  • Rosemary Beales is national director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA)

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