Why we shouldn’t worry about LEPS

As someone who remembers the Small Firms Service, Manpower Services Commission, The Training Agency, TECS, Business Links and the establishment of RDAs, I refuse to be overly exercised by the development of Local Economic Partnerships.

We know that they will have significantly reduced budgets.  We know that they will be led by some concoction of ‘private’ and ‘public’ sector with a seasoning of social enterprise for good measure.

We can be relatively sure that they will have considerable bureaucratic overheads – necessary to ensure openness, accountability and probity and that they will tie themselves up in the same debates about economic development policy that have raged with sterility for decades; picking winners, encouraging start-ups, clusters, sectors, creative classes, beautification, yada, yada, yada.

We know that they will be very heavily influenced by professions allied to construction and engineering. Planners, place-makers, architects, developers who can throw big money at making sure they retain the lion’s share of public spending even as the spending pie shrinks.  One just needs to look at the key ‘Partners’of the currentRegeneration and Renewal National Summit to see the evidence.

We can also be sure that they will embrace a strategic, top down approach to economic development that pretends that economic development happens in a bubble that is disconnected from cultural and social development.  No doubt these too will get their own shrivelled strategic bodies.  The paradigm of economic growth as an unmitigated good will hold sway in the strange world of economic development.  Ideas of sustainability and steady state will not be seriously entertained (unless of course they paradoxically provide opportunities for growth).  Visions will be developed by the anointed, and most of us will see the world of economic development at best, ‘through a glass darkly’.

We must choose our engagements with the strategists, and the terms of our engagement very carefully.  We are currently paying the price for allowing our strategies to be far too dependent on continued and unsustainable state funding.  We must make sure that we don’t give the state such power and control over our futures again.  Over-reliance on the state has proven to be just ‘bad strategy’  We must not sell ourselves to the funders while we call ourselves community development workers – unless they fully embrace the principles of community led regeneration – whether they are convenient to the politicians and bureaucrats or not.

Facilitation is unlikely to get a look in.  Whole person approaches will be ignored (economic development will continue to speak to homo econimicus), co-creation is as close as we will get to responsiveness and bottom-up. And let’s be clear, co-creation as conceived by the state is nowhere near responsive and bottom up.  It still asks ‘how do we engage people in the agenda of the state’ and not ‘how do we engage the state in the agendas of the people’.  For me this is the ultimate deceit that lies at the heart of ‘Big Society’ and that needs to be carefully and thoroughly outed.

We can also be sure that those who actually live in the communities and give their time and skills to help make things better will be expected to do so for free as budgets for community development shrink and are increasingly targeted at problems (obesity, crime, drugs etc) that see humans as essentially degenerate instead of at the development of aspiration, hopes and dreams which see people as essentially good and progressive.

So I refuse to be exercised.  LEPs will evolve.  They will be largely ineffective in spite of the fact that they will be stuffed to the ginnels with good, committed, well meaning people.  And in a decade they will evolve again.  The sign-makers, website developers and letterhead printers will rub their hands with glee.

I will put my energies into supporting bottom up, responsive approaches that honour peoples humanity, that build social capital, that value the contributions of all, regardless of sector, ambition or potential.  And I will keep looking for genuinely innovative approaches to the thorny question of progress?

In practice this means helping others to develop initiatives like BettkultchaCultural ConversationsTEDx Leeds etc (we are blessed with a resurgence of such civic endeavour in Leeds) that holds real promise to nurture something very exciting.

But I will also endeavour to provide some contributions of my own.  For me this means trying to develop Progress School and Innovation Lab as places to foster radical personal and organisational transformation.

And just perhaps we might be able to persuade those in authority to trust us, to support us, to help us.

Who knows?


  1. Maria Isabel Irurita says:

    Oh Mike!

    Once again you’ve said it simple, straight and with a smile! The personal contentment of the public scrutiny of the BLink & RDAs is vanishing slowly with the LEP news. They always find a problem for every solution!

    Very, very intrigued about your progress school and Inn lab. I have become an inn and SK skeptical after various jobs and studying the topic seriously for a PhD. But reading you remind me of my ultimate motivations. Yesterday came across good article from Seyfang and Smith (2007) on grassroots innovations. Let me know if you are interested.

    Have a good day!

  2. I am worried to be honest Mike,

    As a taxpayer I find it deeply depressing that we are busy dismantling structures on the grounds of ‘cuts’ yet as you hint, these costs will only be incurred all over again as new entities are created and are branded with attendant bureaucracy and expense.

    With my professional ‘hat on’ I have a particular concern regarding an apparent vacuum of understanding and leadership regarding ‘start-up’ and ‘enterprise support.’ which as far as I can glean seem to be a LEP activity.

    I get no sense that anyone in the Coalition has any vision whatsoever in this area. Depressingly the Gov’t seem to be pushing the top down job creation model of Inward Investment. Individuals and organisations with an apparent ‘leadership’ role in this area such as Directors of Enterprise at RDAs or Chairs of Regional Enterprise Boards appear to be silent on the whole subject of enterprise support; self-preservation I guess which is understandable. Indeed the only organisation I have seen make any public pronouncement on biz support within the context of LEPs is the Institute of Chartered Accountants…draw your own conclusions.

    Unless some of us engage with LEPs there is absolutely no chance of Progress Schools, innovation hubs etc receiving any support whatsoever from the public purse. Why do we assume that ‘bottom up’ must mean voluntarism when so much ‘top down’ stuff which is actually less effective at fostering enterprise (in all senses of the word) has been supported by public sector largesse?

    • One of the things I learned at Danone was that although public funding might appear to be tempting and easy money you can’t build a sustainable business that is based on it…Progress School is designed to be self funding, and Innovation Lab may have diverse funding sources….

      The opportunity to break free of state funding should be cherished…

  3. ‘although public funding might appear to be tempting and easy money you can’t build a sustainable business that is based on it’

    You don’t have to tell me. I work for a consultancy that is entirely public sector facing….oh dear!

    ‘Progress School is designed to be self funding’.

    I think the words ‘designed to be’ are the most important ones in that sentence. I still say a bit of public £ to lubricate things at the outset is a good thing.

    Certainly if public £ is to be spent on ‘enterprise’ I would far rather that it is spent on something akin to ‘progress schools’ or say, social media surgeries for new biz than on paying Lord Sugar to speak at the ‘little people’ or on staging ‘enterprise roadshows’. I am just foolish/determined* (delete as appropriate) enough to believe that we should hold the public purse to account.

  4. Harry Fortune says:

    Spot on again Mike. Everything goes full circle or perhaps more an ellipse. I remember when I set up a project that was working in an area of deprivation, totally government funded, to help with enterprise. I was advised by the CEO of the local enterprise agency that he has been in the game 25 years and had seen initiatives come and go and the one I am working on won’t be around in 5 years. He was right, nearly spot on to the day.

    The sad thing is that the area I was working in already had something else in place, locally funded, locally run and with a local focus. This was a successful tiny dedicated organisation that helped people to start businesses. That town now has nothing to support enterprise or business start up on a local basis. Perhaps the LEP’s will help to focus the local flavour once again? Important when you are helping communities to develop. Ah, therein lies the folly – helping communities to develop, that’s a different department.

    I hope that the implementation of the LEP’s won’t incur too much cost to the tax payer. It’s a shame they couldn’t tweak what is already in these communities rather than coming up with a totally new initiative. New things are harder to get going and generally more expensive than things that are already established. A reason that is used when you want growth & development through acquisition.

    Let’s see what the next 6-12 months bring. Look forward to the next post.


  5. Kevin Walsh says:

    Spot on post Mike. Informed but somewhat depressingly close to the truth

  6. Hi Mike – only just found your post but agree 100% – if we could take the energy of the people in the various support organisations and divert it into actually setting up new businesses instead of ‘helping’ I think everyone would be better off 🙂 After dealing with my local Business Link (very nice people by the way) for a number of years I think there is no way to square the circle between what the ‘stakeholders’ aka ‘government of the day’ want from the support and what SMEs actually want.

    We’ve decided that we should just connect up any SME who can be bothered to do a quick search on the web to any of our 10,000+ advisor and consultant members – then they can choose who they want, what kind of help they need and what to do with the advice.


  1. […]  And these depend on investment by Whitehall. It also depends on us having a really smart Local Enterprise Partnership, a group of ‘the anointed‘ who will take decisions and make investments (if they have […]

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