Ministers are examining plans to scrap many of England’s regional development bodies as part of the delayed policy paper that UK prime minister Boris Johnson hopes will deliver his ‘levelling up’ agenda.
Three government officials said “serious conversations” had taken place in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about scrapping Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP), voluntary bodies designed to bring business and council leaders together to help set local economic priorities.
A shake-up of the 38 LEPs in England would form part of the long-awaited white paper on how the government intends to deliver its plans to tackle regional inequalities, which was expected before the end of the year. Downing Street said on Monday that it would be published in 2022, with Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, expected to finalise it early in the new year.
LEPs were introduced a decade ago by David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government to replace the Regional Development Agencies introduce by the previous Labour administration. The then prime minister described the RDAs as “wasteful” and argued they “didn’t work”.
One government official said LEPs were “weak, ineffectual and bottom up with poor geography”, noting that they had become new versions of “the hated RDAs they replaced”. Another said, “most of them are a waste of space”.
One senior Whitehall insider confirmed that LEPs would be reformed and may be subsumed into combined authorities, although they noted that not all of the partnerships would be entirely scrapped. “The voice of business is critical to levelling up, but we’re looking to integrate them into local democratic structures such as combined authorities and county deals.”
Gove hinted at a local government conference last month that the powers of LEPs should reside with elected officials. He argued that economic development powers were “best exercised alongside other powers that rest in the hands of democratically elected, accountable leaders”.
The government declined to comment on whether LEPs would be scrapped, but a spokesperson said: “Empowering local leadership is a vital part of levelling up and ambitious plans will be set out in the white paper”.
The levelling up white paper is also expected to focus on devolution, although ministers have yet to decide the extent of further powers for elected mayors. One official involved in the process said they expected both “deeper and wider” devolution, including new deals for counties as well as the combined authorities in cities.
One senior Tory said the policy paper would probably include “a gradient of powers depending on mayoral model or county deals,” adding “the pro-devolution agenda appears to be winning the day”.
Ministers are examining proposals to devolve more control over post-16 education, a change promoted by several of England’s elected mayors. One government insider admitted, “we could go further by devolving some of the national skills fund. ”
Some Conservative MPs, however, remain sceptical about the white paper and believe that ministers have yet to find enough substance to support Johnson’s grand ambitions for the levelling up agenda.
“Levelling up is fast becoming one of those dream policies that the government actually doesn’t have the resources to figure out properly,” said one senior Tory.
“Regional inequality has been an issue that has been pushed back for 40 or so years,” one minister added. “Everyone has a different interpretation of what levelling up means. For some it’s about infrastructure. For others, it means improving health outcomes — it is for us to clearly define it.”