Government must fund Cambs LEP or watch it die

THE Government may have to provide funding for the embryonic Greater-Cambridge-Greater-Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership if the public/private body is to help generate economic growth in the area.

The Cambridgeshire LEP was one of the first to be approved by business and local government Ministers to replace work previously done by regional development agencies and – in Cambridgeshire’s case – effective lobbying organisations such as Cambridgeshire Horizons and the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

But unlike the RDA, which had combined budgets running into billions of pounds, the LEPs currently get nothing.

So the GCGPLEP’s new chairman Neville Reyner is unpaid, as are the just-appointed board members, including John Bridge, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce.

Some councils have offered modest funding from dwindling economic development budgets, while others have offered benefits in kind. But those few thousands of pounds will not provide a credible replacement for even a geographical part of the East of England Development Agency, which was generating �5 worth of benefit from each of the �100million-plus it spent every year.

The new LEP covers Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and parts of neighbouring Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire that are a natural economic fit. But it has no budget in any meaningful sense of the term.

Even Ministers in the Business Department think the Government should put its hand in its pocket for the LEPs.

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In a (probably deliberately leaked) letter to his boss, the Secretary of State Vince Cable, Business Minister Mark Prisk wrote last November: “I want to alert you to the strong concerns of the business community regarding our LEP policy: in particular, the way in which LEPs have been formed in recent weeks.

“I have had strong representations since my return from recess from a wide range of businesses and business associations including the British Retail Consortium, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, EEF, and John Cridland of the CBI.

“You will be aware that the BIS Select Committee has been gathering evidence on RDA wind-down and LEP policy. The evidence provided by businesses at that session further confirms these points.

“I believe there is considerable friction from the business community on this policy and how it is being implemented. At worst, the danger is that the CBI and other become detached from this policy heralding likely failure in large parts of England.”

John Bridge is in absolutely no doubt that Ministers’ policy towards the ‘engines of economic recovery’ – the ‘golden triangle’ of the knowledge-based economy, bounded by Cambridge, Oxford and London – is wrong-headed.

He argues that, instead of providing ‘growth area’ funding for the areas it hopes will grow, the money should go first to the areas that actually are growing. That would not only generate the growth the national economy needs but the Government’s share of it would fund its aspirations for depressed areas without draining the public purse.

Sir David Trippier, who leaves Cambridgeshire Horizons, the not-for-profit company charged with delivering billions of pounds of infrastructure and thousands of new homes to the county, at the end of March after seven years as its chairman, does not dissent from Mr Bridge’s view.

“I think the LEP should be funded,” he told The Hunts Post. “Someone has got to service economic development. There are small teams across the sub-region that are handling this, but there’s a great need for everyone to pull together.

“I want the LEP to succeed, and I think the Government will have to provide some money to ensure economic development goes ahead. It will be an investment, not a cost.”

He believes the area could attract funding as one of the Government’s new Enterprise Zones – a subject about which he knows more than most: he was the Minister responsible for EZs in the 1980s Thatcher Government.