One quango rises from another's ashes
PUBLISHED: 07:33 04 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:06 20 February 2013
Most of us are only marginally aware of any specific quangos, and rather less conscious of what they actually do. They do affect our lives, however, so they matter, says Leo Hickish, of the Country Land & Business Association
Its too early to judge the true nature of the Coalition Governments localism agenda. But one of the aspects most relevant to the rural economy is the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to replace Regional Development Agencies (the South East England Development Agency or SEEDA in our case). LEPs are supposed to bring a combine the know-how of local government and local businesses for the benefit of regional economies, and distribute grant funding as appropriate.
County Councils are prime candidates to form these LEPs, but word has it that not all County Councils in the South East have paid sufficient (or any) heed to their respective district councils when formulating their LEP bids. An inauspicious start for the creation or an organization prefixed with Local. I hasten to add that I have no evidence that this has been the case in Sussex.
I am concerned that SEEDAs replacement will leave the countryside in the lurch (SEEDA itself did not prove very effective in rural and farming matters in my native East Sussex). For a start, the area covered by LEPs is up for debate, and it looks likely there will be less regard for local authority and other administrative boundaries. It will be all too easy for rural areas to fall between the gaps.
I am also acutely aware that rebranding is a time-honoured means of introducing unpopular reform without officially announcing it. We know cuts are coming our way, and of course nobody wants the axe to fall where it might hurt them.
But while the countryside is not looking for handouts, where there is a lack of the skills, housing or services needed to meet rural economic needs, this becomes a bigger issue than any business can tackle on its own. The countryside is not just a pretty backdrop, or an optional extra: it is vital to the health of the Sussex economy, and its skills base and infrastructure need to be in a healthy state if it is to contribute to economic recovery. From farm shops to renewable fuel initiatives, grants for rural businesses are an investment in jobs andcompetitiveness. The increase in emphasis on local decision making which the creation of LEPs implies is encouraging. LEPs are supposed to create the right environment for business and growth in their areas, by tackling issues such as planning and housing, infrastructure and employment. I wonder, however, whether LEPs will be truly local.
During a fringe event at the Lib Dem conference, Vince Cable said that of the initial 60 applications to create LEPs, around 10 to 15 would be approved, 10 to 15 rejected, and the rest asked to think again. Is Cable being sensible and thorough, or is this a question of localism being fine, as long as it reflects a central agenda? Local delivery of national policy is not, in my view, localism.
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Leo Hickish is a partner at Batcheller Thacker and vice chairman of the Sussex branch of the Country Land & Business Association (CLA). www.cla.org.uk