Most people have never heard of local enterprise partnerships. I suspect that many elected representatives are equally ignorant. Sad, because they are very influential bodies, doling out loads of public funds, and determining the economic priorities within their given area – in our case, the Liverpool City-Region( LCR ).
Ours consists of fifteen people – the leaders of the six local authorities together with nine representatives of business. No-one is elected to it; membership is by invitation. The chairman – Robert Hough – is a director of the ubiquitous Peel Group, and head of the latter’s airport division (they own Liverpool Airport). There is also a representative of the Stobart transport and logistics group. The vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University has a seat, as does the local boss of giant American financial services group Grant Thornton (who happen to be district auditors for Liverpool, Wirral, St. Helens and Knowsley councils; Merseyside Police; Merseyside Fire and Rescue; and Merseyside Waste Disposal). The board of the LEP is completed with another five local business luminaries.
Make no mistake. The inclusion of local council chiefs simply adds a veneer of accountability to this body. The numbers are always stacked against the local council representation even if they were to try to defy its private sector thinking. The LEP tries to support its plans with consultants’ reports, but their objectivity is a moot point. One voluminous report on fracking in our area freely admitted to having ignored any environmental considerations. It also ignored reference to Peel’s published agreement with a drilling group. to open up their extensive Merseyside and Deeside estate to their controversial drilling rigs.
I followed up on another report, compiled, as it turned out , by an eager-to-please one man band “consultancy“ based in Lymm, Cheshire. This man had managed to secure lucrative LEP business within 2 years of setting up his £1 company. Personally, I would be uneasy at the prospect of basing economic policy on the basis of such relative inexperience.
Reading through the minutes of LEP meetings, I was struck by its practical – i.e.financial – and moral support for the four Enterprise Zones established by central government. After all, two of these four sites – Wirral Waters and Liverpool Waters – are owned by our old friends the Peel Group. I am certain that Peel’s man on the LEP declares his interest when these sites are raised, just as he does with Liverpool Airport (now being subsidised by Mayor Anderson).
What is also striking in the minutes is the LEP’s bias towards transport and logistics infra structure. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of Liverpool’s position as a commercial centre. There are, however, other important areas of the local economy, including manufacturing, tourism, and higher education. We all wish the seaport and airport do well, but is it wise to put so many eggs in so few baskets?
The government-funded Growth Deals have amounted to £263 million. The LEP apportions this as follows: £180 million on transport projects; £41 million on skills training; and £5 million on the International Business Festival. The rest is scattered across the local economy. These weighty allocations offer some companies a massive lift, whilst other are left to whistle in the wind.
Last week, Manchester once again surged ahead, with the devolution from Whitehall of a £6 billion+ health and social care budget. Not long ago, they were able to announce a real investment of £1 billion in their airport – no hopes or wish lists, but genuine committed investment (Mr. Hough, as a Manchester resident, must have been pleased). Nevertheless, they are having a healthy debate about governance in their city-region. Meanwhile, here in the Liverpool City Region, it transpires that the Chairman of the LEP – elected by no-one and accountable to no-one – has mysteriously been elevated to full, voting membership of the Combined Authority due to run the city-region alongside an elected mayor, from 2017. Nowhere else in the country has such an undemocratic stunt been tolerated.