By Nick Sturge
The Local Enterprise Partnership, or LEP to its friends, for the West of England (or CUBA — the County that Used to Be Avon, to its friends) is in the process of being established. It has come about as a whim of the coalition government with little guidance on what it should do, how it should operate and with no money.
So is it a waste of time that everyone will walk away from, or the best opportunity to make this City region really buzz?
What is a LEP? It is loosely defined in government white papers and self-expressed for this area by the submission document. I think of it is as the vehicle by which to focus efforts towards a vision, and to marshal what little resources are available, to common goals.
Imagine, if you will, a coffee mug and some coffee. The mug on its own is pointless. Pouring the coffee on to a table, with no mug, is also pretty pointless. Pour the coffee into the mug and you have a cup of coffee that you can drink. Of course, not everyone likes coffee and it will always be too hot, too cold, too bitter too sweet or the wrong colour to different people, but you cannot argue that the coffee and the mug are more useful together than apart. For me, the LEP is the mug and that’s what I mean by marshalling resources to a common purpose.
While it’s easy to be cynical and think that this is another wretched quango, the fact is that this is the only game in town.
If people are cynical about it and moan and whine from the sidelines it will fail and the people of Bath, Bristol, Weston-super-Mare, Thornbury and everywhere in between, will lose out. It is what we make of it — as businesses, organisations or individuals.
Its focus is to create economic growth and we need the passion and the people behind it to ensure that economic growth actually works towards general well-being.Â We want more jobs, we want more disposable income to alleviate poverty and raise standards of living and education. All these things are intertwined with economic growth.
The West of England has real potential — for example, it is rated as second in a league table that covers economic performance; business start-up, survival and growth rates; sectoral profiles; skill levels of the resident population; unemployment and employment rates.
There are plenty of opportunities around here and at this point in time there are so many things lining up to be seized: the removal of some antiquated quangos and government activities, the growth of the creative, microelectronics, advanced engineering, low carbon and tourism sectors (just look at how many hotels have been built recently!), the vacuum created in Whitehall which enables sensible, home-grown initiatives from the regions to influence policy and so on.
As ever, the challenge here is leadership. An interim board has been established to get this thing off the ground — sketching out the shape of the coffee mug if you like. Its first task is to work out the best way of appointing a permanent board to ensure maximum “buy-in” from organisations and individuals alike. There are some big players in the West of England — employers, unitary authorities, universities, sector groups, community associations and so on. The responsibility is with them, more than others, to throw their weight behind the LEP — or risk being the one to blame for missing this opportunity. The IoD, CBI, FSB and Chamber of Commerce came together, putting rivalries behind them, for a common goal of the business representatives on the interim board. That should set the tone for the future.
I wish we weren’t starting from here but we are and we must look forward and grasp the opportunities that we do have. The time is now; to pull more things together to make the greater Bristol area a much, much better place.
We will make a great leap forward if we try.